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Missouri moves out of finals week, into last stretch of non-conference play

The Tigers only have three non-conference games left before opening up conference play Jan. 4 at Kentucky.

Missouri v Temple Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Finals week is over at MU, which means the Missouri men’s basketball team can get back to, well, playing basketball.

This grueling stretch of exams has forced the Tigers (5-4) into an unusual week of practice. Head coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday the team had yet to have a practice with every player in attendance due to the finals schedule. But now that the semester has reached its conclusion, the players are back and ready to prepare for a home matchup with Southern Illinois (4-6) on Sunday.

“It is more fun when you get to just go into games, but this break gave us the chance to rest our bodies a little bit, get treatment and just go over things we need to work on to get better,” forward Mitchell Smith said.

Because of the finals week, Missouri has had an eight-day stretch in between games. The last time the Tigers played, they took down Temple 64-54 on the road. The win came after a brutal 68-60 home loss to Charleston Southern, arguably one of the worst home losses Missouri has ever been a part of.

That said, the Tigers knew they had a chance against the Owls if they could limit their 3-point shooting and not allow a hot start out of the gate. During Missouri’s three-game losing streak, that was the case far too often. The loss to the Buccaneers was highlighted by their hot streak from deep, as Charleston Southern went 10-for-22 (45.5%) behind the arc in the Tigers’ eight-point loss.

But Missouri locked down the perimeter all night long against Temple. The Owls didn’t hit a 3-pointer in the first half and finished 2-for-21 (9.5%) from deep, the worst shooting performance a Tigers opponent has had all season.

“Especially after that Charleston Southern loss, I think guys really had to sit back and reflect on where the direction of the team was going,” Smith said. “So we went to Temple with the mindset to win, and once we got that win, guys thought like, ‘We’re good. We can play with any team out there.’”

The win Saturday was a necessity for a team that had lost all three of its biggest non-conference games up to that point. Guard Xavier Pinson said it was a “big confidence booster,” which was especially true for wing Javon Pickett.

A perennial starter in Martin’s lineups since last season, Pickett was moved to the bench in favor of Pinson against Charleston Southern and Smith against Temple. Though his defense remained steady, Pickett’s offensive performances were sluggish during the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

However, the move to the bench re-energized him as he recorded nine points against the Buccaneers and a team-high 16 versus the Owls. Pickett hasn’t lost his starting role for good, according to Martin, but the spark-plug-off-the-bench role seems to be working for him.

“Sometimes you can look at their face and see a guy like him was pressing, and you oftentimes say, ‘You want to try to have fun,’” Martin said. “... He competes and he plays hard, so you wouldn’t notice it there because the effort was always there. But just offensively, he just didn’t feel like himself.”

So with the Salukis coming into town Sunday, the Tigers are getting out of finals-mode and back into basketball-mode.

At media availability Friday afternoon, the players said they were still in the early stages of preparing for their opponent. Forward Jeremiah Tilmon said he hadn’t gotten a chance to watch film, while Smith said the size advantage Missouri has is one of his early takeaways of Southern Illinois.

If there’s one thing a majority of the players on the roster do know, it’s that they’ll be seeing a very familiar face in former Tiger Ronnie Suggs.

Suggs transferred to MU from Bradley prior to his junior year, and after sitting out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer rules, he appeared in 27 games for Missouri in 2018-19. Most of the players still keep in touch with Suggs even though he’s now out in Carbondale, Illinois. Tilmon said he texted Suggs to let him know he’ll be talking “stuff” to him.

But when Martin reached out, he said that he couldn’t prod any information about the Salukis’ game plan.

“I called Ronnie (but) he didn’t give me any insight,” he joked.

Southern Illinois will be the first of the last three non-conference games. The Tigers still have next Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights matchup with Illinois in St. Louis, and they close out 2019 with a home game against Chicago State.

Braggin’ Rights, in particular, is one of the games Missouri players look forward to every season, but for now, the Tigers are focused on the Salukis.

“We’re already talking about it. That’s a big game, but we’ve got to get through Southern Illinois before we get there,” Smith said.