We’ve established this as a transition year, right? Good, then nobody was surprised that the Tigers didn’t beat the SEC’s — and perhaps the nation’s — premier basketball program, the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats. After all, Missouri got 57.5 percent of its minutes from players (mostly freshmen and sophomores) who had never played UK before.
Despite a first half in which Missouri was outscored by 18, the team hung around and covered the spread in a 66-58 home loss to Kentucky on Tuesday night. No, it wasn’t a pretty game. But what’s a rebuilding season if you can’t take a step back to see how the young Tigers’ future core performed against John Calipari’s squad of future NBA stars?
Here’s a look at contributions made by each of the seven Tigers who got their first taste of action against the NCAA’s all-time winningest program:
Pickett struggled for the first 27 minutes or so. From then on, there might not have been a better player on the floor. The stretch during which he scored all of his nine points started when the freshman collected a long rebound off a Mark Smith trey, looped around the perimeter and spotted up for a 3 of his own. After that, he started doing his damage inside the arc. Three times down the stretch he hit tough shots over a defender: a layup high off the glass, a fadeaway with the shot clock winding down and a driving floater. He drove inside once more with less than four minutes to play, and when the defense keyed on him with a double team, Pickett threaded a pass between the two Wildcats to Jeremiah Tilmon for an easy dunk. Pickett also had strong moments on the defensive end. These included a steal and a transition sequence in which he halted Kentucky’s (albeit sloppy) two-on-one fast break, contesting Keldon Johnson’s layup and grabbing the rebound.
The former walk-on had a career night, breaking double-digit points (13) for the first time in a Tigers uniform on 5-of-9 shooting. And he did it while wearing No. 3, the same number that was unveiled in the Mizzou Arena rafters at halftime to honor Missouri’s all-time leading scorer, Derrick Chievous. The redshirt junior made three treys, all of them contested (we’ll forgive him for tossing up one of the brickiest bricks we’ve ever seen on an open 3 from the top of the key). He hit another jumper. He made a spinning layup after the Wildcats halted his drive beneath the basket. And he played solid defense. Suggs is making a strong case to stay on scholarship next season.
Watson wasn’t able to get much going early in this one, but he did have one strong drive to the basket in the first half, something the Tigers hope to see more of as the season winds to a close. Even better, he recognized an impending double team and made the correct read, finding Nikko wide open for an elbow jumper (which the big man missed). The freshman also hit two contested 3-pointers late in the contest and nearly canned two more.
Smith gave Missouri its second and final lead of the night, an 11-10 advantage, with a strong pump fake that allowed him to carve inside and toss up a shot that pecked the rim on its way down. And his screen on Immanuel Quickley in the backcourt left Kentucky’s freshman guard sprawled on the floor for at least a minute before he was helped off by trainers. Unfortunately, Smith would soon need his own trainers’ aid. While fighting for a rebound, an inadvertent elbow from EJ Montgomery sent the Missouri redshirt sophomore to the locker room with what appeared to be a head/neck injury. Smith did not return.
Smith received a small ovation from the Missouri crowd when he entered the game; it represented his first action at Mizzou Arena since Jan. 16. The guard looked healthier than he did against Ole Miss on Saturday, and he wasn’t afraid to launch from 3, taking five attempts. But he missed all five. Smith looked to be out of rhythm early, and he probably forced one or two of the looks. Another one or two looked good but didn’t fall. His best play of the night came on a slick extra pass to Jordan Geist as the Tigers rotated the ball around the perimeter. Smith would have had a decent look, but Geist hit the wide-open trey and Smith earned the assist.
It was tough sledding again for Santos on the offensive end. The sophomore is probably miscast as a forward in this Missouri rotation. Even so, he played strong defense on Kentucky’s Reid Travis for much of the first half.
The freshman facilitator opened the scoring with a pull-up trey. Pinson’s ball-handling and vision were well-known when he arrived at Missouri, but his perimeter shooting (40.8 percent from 3 entering Tuesday) has been a pleasant surprise. The guard is perhaps the Tigers’ most willing slasher, and he showed as much against Kentucky. Early in the contest, he drove to the rim and drew a foul, hitting both free throws to cut Missouri’s deficit to one. And with six seconds remaining in the half, Pinson glided from coast to coast, slicing through the entire Wildcats defense on the way to the rim. Unfortunately, he may have been a bit surprised with how open he was once he got there. The ball spun out of the basket, and Reed Nikko’s tip as time expired didn’t fall.