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Missouri relieved anxiety — and showed progress — against South Carolina

No, the Tigers’ transition season hasn’t gone as smoothly as one might expect, but the margin between success and mediocrity has been slim. All the while, young pieces are showing signs of improvement.

Missouri Basketball

For two hours on Saturday, Missouri purged its recent struggles against South Carolina, a 78-63 victory that also served as a much needed cathartic release for Kevin Puryear and Torrence Watson.

For the better part of two months, we’ve lamented Puryear’s plight, a span where the senior stalwart’s offensive games been drifting aimlessly in the doldrums. The Blue Springs came into the day shooting just 39.3 percent and hadn’t cracked double-figures in SEC play this season. During the past three seasons, we’ve seen Puryear’s overall efficiency dip as he took on a complementary role in the rotation, but I’ll admit that I was surprised that it had been almost two years since he scored more than 13 points in a conference game.

Conditions, however, proved optimal for a breakout: 18 points on 5 of 7 shooting, six rebounds and three assists.

Namely, the Gamecock’s injury woes forced coach Frank Martin to ditch his preferred man-to-man defense, which relies on guards extending pressure, in favor of a 2-3 zone. For Puryear, it was a godsend. First, it allows him to get clean catches in the mid-post. Next, there’s enough operating room for him to set up his favorite move — a left-handed baby hook shot. And finally, the zone creates natural mismatches.

And if he didn’t have a good look at the rim, there were still unobstructed passing lanes to kick the ball out to shooters or feed to a fellow big man in the short corner.

For Puryear, whose final time on the hardwood at Mizzou Arena arrives next Saturday, it’s a welcome end to anxiety that’s nipped at his psyche, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“I think I’ve been really putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform well and I’ve been inside my own head,” he said. “Because I want to do so well and I love this school and love my team. ... But I really think it got to the point where I was overthinking the game. I’ve been playing this game since I was 5 years old. I know how to play this game. Today I told myself, you know what, go for it. Just leave all the thoughts and doubts, whatever I had, leave it in the locker room and go out and play as hard as I could.”

Puryear headlined a game where rotation players stepped up for a roster trying to finish a season where it’s lost critical cogs in Jontay Porter and Mark Smith, while Jeremiah Tilmon’s presence fluctuates from game to game. Yesterday, Tilmon and South Carolina’s Chris Silva — two of the SEC’s most foul-prone big men — were dogged by whistles. (Granted, Tilmon was still semi-productive with eight points, eight rebounds and a couple of blocks in 20 minutes.)

Junior Reed Nikko posted eight points to go with four rebounds, and he was part of the Tigers’ two most productive rotations on the day. Watching Nikko and Puryear thrive made it easy for Tilmon to pass the time when seated in a folding chair, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.

“When they are in the game and they are hooping, I be on the bench just jumping up and down happy as a mug. I don’t even be tripping on the fouls,” said Tilmon, who finished with eight points and eight rebounds. “I see them doing good so I just want to keep encouraging them.”

Oh, and we can’t omit Torrence Watson, who posted a career-high 20 points, using a 4-of-9 day from behind the 3-point arc to set up attacking closeouts and to loft up floaters around the rim. Over the past three games, the freshman’s scoring has ticked up incrementally as he shot 40 percent from long range — the kind of dead-eyed accuracy he showcased as the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year at Whitfield.

“I was really feeling it tonight,” Watson said. “If my teammates kept getting me the ball in the right spots, I was going to knock it down for them.”

Looking at MU’s record and the SEC standings, it’s easy to label this season as one where the Tigers have constantly fought to keep the car on the road. If the SEC tournament started this week, they’d be the No. 12 seed, and it’s unlikely — barring a sweep — that Martin’s squad can escape an all-too-familiar Wednesday game in Nashville. And even if Mizzou were to steal a couple wins, there’s an infinitesimal chance at an NIT berth.

Keep in mind, though, that if not for roughly 27 minutes of poor play against at LSU, Texas A&M and Florida, the Tigers might own three more conference wins. This glass-half-full scenario would have the MU sitting at 16-12 overall, 7-9 in the SEC and preparing for a winnable road tilt on Wednesday against Georgia. No, the Tigers wouldn’t be perched on the NCAA tournament bubble, but the program would likely have a postseason future.

That’s how slim the margin for error has been this season — too many turnovers and too many ill-timed scoring droughts scuttling hopes of overcoming adversity.

Which is what makes Saturday encouraging. The Tigers haven’t given up the ghost, and, even better, you can see incremental improvement. Watson’s offense will get ink, but he’s grown immensely as a defender, particularly off the ball. Javon Pickett struggled during non-conference action to finish plays around the rim. Now? He’s shooting close to 50 percent when driving the ball into the paint. And while Xavier Pinson needs more strength and to improve his decision-making, the lithe point guard’s shown flashes — all while displaying a knack for getting on the glass.

Collectively, those modest gains — and Puryear’s late resurgence — helped position the Tigers to end a four-game skid.

Afterward, I thought Gamecocks coach Frank Martin point whose saliency can’t be understated.

This isn’t just empty flattery from a rival coach. As of Saturday, South Carolina ranked 78th nationally in luck, per KenPom. How does Pomeroy define luck? Simple: a team’s actual record against the mark projected by its win probabilities. For example, the Gamecocks are 5-0 in SEC games where the margin of victory is two possessions or less.

Flip three of those games, and Carolina might find itself in the same terrain as Mizzou.