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Study Hall: Tennessee 72, Missouri 60

On the road against the top-ranked team in the land, Missouri did enough to stay within striking distance, but it didn’t have the offensive firepower to threaten the Volunteers.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

On first glance, Missouri’s loss at top-ranked Tennessee wasn’t so bad.

Yet reviewing the metrics of this one also leaves you thinking the what transpired inside Thompson-Boling Arena could have been so much more.

Normally, a 12-point road to a team of the Volunteers’ caliber qualifies as an acceptable outcome, at least when the projected margin of victory entering the night was closer to 18 points. Twice within the game’s final 10 minutes, Missouri managed to pull within eight, and had several chances to slice the margin to a single possession.

Unfortunately, Mitchell Smith couldn’t get two catch-and-shoot 3-pointers to fall.

Martin and his staff may have nailed the scout, but the Tigers’ personnel simply isn’t at a point its development where it could deliver a measure of vengeance on their coach’s behalf. Meanwhile, the state of play will only change as MU’s roster turns over and the coaching staff acquires new parts to plug into its machine.

That starts with getting Mario McKinney Jr. and Tray Jackson on campus, reeling in talented prospects like Cam’Ron Fletcher and having Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett grind away in the practice gym this summer.

What we can say is that new circumstances — Mark Smith’s injury and the black hole at combo forward — have led Martin to embrace a youth movement. Last night, freshman saw 42 percent of available minutes. While Martin could curb their dosage of action, all the better to let them learn by playing through mistakes.

There are nine games left, and they’re not entirely devoid of stakes. It’s just a question of how much weight you lend them when it comes to assessing how MU should close the season.

In theory, there is still a narrow mountain pass Missouri can follow to the NIT. Precedent strongly suggests the Tigers need to reach 17 wins and finish inside the top 100 of the NCAA’s NET rankings to have any foundation for case. (Only one team in the past decade with less than 16 wins earned an at-large bid.) As you can see, RPI is a moving target, but there is a trend for what’s needed to squeak into the field of 32.

NIT Baseline

Year Avg. Wins Avg. RPI Lowest Team
Year Avg. Wins Avg. RPI Lowest Team
2014 20.8 64.5 West Virginia (17-14, 8-10 Big 12; No. 88 RPI)
2015 20.8 66.5 Arizona State (17-14, 9-9 Pac-12; No. 102 RPI)
2016 20.3 66.1 Creighton (18-13, 9-9 Big East; No. 94 RPI)
2017 19.9 73 Georgia Tech (17-14, 8-10 ACC; No. 106)
2018 20.8 64.3 LSU (17-14, 8-10, SEC; No. 94 RPI)
NCAA Archive

Pulling it off likely means sweeping Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia. Splitting a home-and-home with Ole Miss is also vital. MU would also likely need to pull off an upset against Kentucky, Florida or Mississippi State — all matchups where the win probability is less than 22 percent, per KenPom. Failing that, Tigers may have to pick up a couple victories in Nashville at the SEC tournament.

In other words, a lot of events would need to break MU’s way — all while their best all-around perimeter piece is sidelined and Jordan Geist (ankle) and Jeremiah Tilmon (knee) returned to Columbia banged up.

What unfolded Tuesday night doesn’t change the Tigers’ trajectory in the short or long term. The preseason forecast also called for a loss in Knoxville. The preseason injury to Jontay Porter and Smith’s hobbled ankle simply made it more of a certainty.

Yet there’s still a goal — albeit elusive — for the Tigers to chase down, and a (growing) acceptance that this season is about building a core and instilling a durable culture.

Team Stats

  • Missouri wiped the glass and gave itself a chance: The Tigers almost tripled their expected margin on the backboards, but they just couldn’t cash in enough of those second possessions. The Vols turned in what amounts to an average defensive outing in SEC play, and MU wound up attempting 12 more shots from the floor. Unfortunately, MU’s hard work only netted them a plus-4 margin (10-6) on second-chance points.
  • The Tigers valued the ball: To go into Knoxville and keep the turnover rate below 15 percent is a victory for anyone, much less Missouri. When Tennessee napalmed Mizzou in January, they racked up 22 points off takeaways. In Tuesday’s rematch, the Vols only tallied 10 — just two points more than MU. Winning the rebounding war and holding on to the ball helped MU get the pace to its liking.
  • MU couldn’t muster enough offense to capitalize on the opportunity: Without Mark Smith’s brand of low-usage, high-efficiency basketball, the Tigers wind up fasting for long stretches, such as seven-minutes in the first half where they didn’t hit a shot from the floor. Over the past four games, MU is only hitting at a 28.9-percent clip from 3-point range, while still ranking among the worst teams nationally (No. 312) for finishing plays around the rim. (See UT’s nine blocked shots.)

Player Stats

Your Trifecta: Jordan Geist, Kevin Puryear, Xavier Pinson

As he’s known to do, Geist steadied Missouri at lead guard, especially late in the first half when Tennessee dragged out a 15-3 run over seven minutes to open up a 31-19 lead. The senior knocked down a 3-pointer, assisted Pickett on one and then canned another 3-ball in less than two minutes of game action to keep the Tigers within shouting distance at 35-29. While he went a little dormant after halftime, he was crucial in helping Missouri maintain contact.

Then there’s Puryear, who needed this game the way a starving man needs a loaf of bread. Tuesday’s output bears some resemblance to what we thought he’d provide night in and night out in SEC play. The Blue Springs native scored on a rim run, sank a couple of free throws and saw left-handed baby-hook in the middle of the lane drop. Meanwhile, the senior now ranks second in the SEC for defensive rebounding (25.5 DR%) during conference play. For Puryear, the hope is he finds a way to mimic Ryan Rosburg’s stellar 10-game stretch to cap off his career in Columbia.

As for Pinson, the freshman’s success is a matter of keeping the turnover tally in check and capitalizing on possessions when the ball comes his way. He struck that balance last night, attacking a seam for a layup, hitting a 3 off a ball reversal and getting a 50-50 ball for putback. More importantly, the sinewy freshman tried his best to replicate Mark Smith on the glass, hauling down eight rebounds.

Missouri’s guards were this close to making it an anxious night in Knoxville, but Watson and Pickett saw too many shots draw iron.

Skim the floor percentages, and it’s evident how close MU was to putting real game pressure on the Volunteers. Geist and Puryear did their part to move the ball and cash in quality looks. If not for Kyle Alexander swatting a dunk in transition and putback, Tilmon probably has four more points in the ledger. And Mitchell Smith needed one more shot to ripple twine. Assume all three of those shots drop, and suddenly the final margin is sliced to five points.

The biggest arbiter of MU’s fate, though, was the 3 of 14 night from Pickett and Watson behind the 3-point arc. Now, when the night began, the tandem was only shooting 28.3 percent from long distance, so seeing poor output isn’t entirely surprising. Since Braggin’ Rights, Pickett’s shown a higher propensity for finishing plays off the bounce, and Watson’s at least willing to sporadically attack closeouts.

After the first eight minutes, Tennessee tweaked its ball-screen defense to weak and ice MU’s ball-handlers — a more assertive approach that cut off penetration in the middle of the floor. Once the Vols through up roadblocks and narrowed gaps, backline rotations became easier, and that’s when UT started swatting shots. Unlike Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden, MU’s wings don’t often initiate or play through contact around the basket, which (partly) explains how MU winds up shooting fewer freebies.

Of course, you could also lump in Santos for a critique. At UIC, his best source of offense was knocking down spot-up jumpers, and the sophomore appeared to possess all the requisite traits for a 3-and-D wing. Instead, he’s only put up four attempts from deep during SEC action, and is only converting 36.8 percent inside the arc. Toss his 23.8 percent turnover rate, and you’ll see why he’s only sporting a 62.9 offensive rating as MU turns into the home stretch.

In the preseason, rosier outlooks were premised on Watson and Santos helping spread out defenses. Instead, both have scuffled.

Against Tennessee, MU created enough drag on the Vols’ offense to keep the margin hovering around nine or 10 points most of the night. (They did an especially good job clogging space around the elbows, where UT curls guards or tries to initiate high-low feeds to its big men.) They outworked Barnes’ bunch on the backboards. And they clutched the rock tightly.

In macro, a young and undermanned roster went on the road and manged to dictate pace, avoid mistakes and create second chances against the best team in the country. There’s no shame in the effort MU put on display. The buy-in to Martin’s culture is clearly evident. Yet as the season winds to a close, seeing MU’s labor pay off would be a nice change of pace.