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Up and Down: Mizzou is in need of consistency down the stretch

After starting the year 13-3, the Tigers have dropped their last three games and are trending downward

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Missouri Tigers are struggling. Once predicted to be as high as a three seed in this year’s March Madness tourney, Missouri is now facing the possibility of dropping out the AP top 25, a serious plunge that’s occurred within the last 10 days.

So, what’s going on?

One the Tigers’ biggest difference makers this year, Jeremiah Tilmon, has been out the last two games due to a death in the family. Missouri has dropped three straight games to Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Georgia, the last two of which were without Tilmon. While we all mourn the loss for Tilmon and wish him and his family the best, Tiger fans desperately want to see their starting big man back on the hardwood. “We always want Tilly out there,” Parker Braun mentioned following the loss to Arkansas.

Over the past three games, Missouri is suffering a -36 point margin — for reference, the Tigers were a +78 over the course of their first 16 matchups. The bulk of the negative margin comes via the 21 point road loss at Ole Miss, a contest which Tilmon was present for. In that game, Dru Smith was the only starter to score in double digits and he put up more points than Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, and Jeremiah Tilmon combined during the Rebels’ rout of the Tigers.

Then there was the game against Arkansas. Missouri didn’t have Tilmon but still put up 81 points, including 73 in regulation. The Tigers weren’t awful but they allowed the Razorbacks 42 second half points and were able to hang on to victory in overtime.

And then came Georgia, a game many Missouri fans figured would put the Tigers back in the win column — not the case. Missouri was out-gunned in the second half by a tenacious Bulldogs team who excelled in transition. Kobe Brown had a breakout night for Missouri, with 21 points, 5 boards and 2 blocks, but it wasn’t enough as Georgia ran away with the victory in the game’s final minutes.

It’s easy to point to Tilmon’s absence in the Tigers’ last two losses, but both were games in which Missouri had the edge going into the half and had a second half lead, so there has to be something else contributing to a string of Tigers losses. It all starts on the defense end.

Cuonzo Martin has hung his hat on defense his entire career, yet over the last three games, Missouri has surrendered an surprising 246 points. In the Tigers’ first 15 games this season, they only allowed upwards of 80+ points twice — the first time on the road to Auburn and then at home against TCU in overtime. In Missouri’s last three games, they’ve given up 80+ each time and lost all three, moving them to just 1-5 in games where an opposing team scores 80 or more. Missouri was largely viewed as a contender for the SEC conference title after defeating Alabama, but they’re 6-6 and caught squarely in the middle of the pack.

Scoring has mainly come from three players — Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson and Jeremiah Tilmon. Of the nineteen games played thus far this season, one of them has led the Tigers in scoring fifteen times. This isn’t a shocking statistic, seeing as Mark Smith has been cold since the start of December, and players like Kobe Brown and Mitchell Smith are more hustle players than true scorers, but things get scary when you look at their recent production.

The most consistent offensive threat Missouri has had this year is Dru Smith, despite not having Missouri’s highest points per game average. Night in and night out, Dru Smith puts up numbers on both ends. His 1.8 steals per game is amongst the highest in the SEC, and his 13.9 points per game ranks second among his Tiger teammates — only Pinson’s season average ranks higher (in large part to him putting up 25+ points every fourth game).

Tilmon has gone quiet offensively outside of his recent absence. Missouri’s big man hasn’t put up a double digit performance in his past three games. Tilmon’s struggles at the free throw line have been a major story line all season and he has a mere 23 makes out of his last 50 attempts at the free throw line (46%). Tilmon was looking like a potential all-SEC candidate to begin conference play, but has regressed offensively the last month. It appears Jeremiah Tilmon could be back in the Tigers’ lineup this weekend, if we go by what Cuonzo Martin said after the Georgia game. “We expect him back soon,” Martin said.

Hopefully, Missouri’s recent performances are an outlier and not an indication of what’s to come. The Tigers still have an impressive 6 Quad 1 victories on their resume this season — only Ohio State, Gonzaga, Alabama, Illinios, and Baylor have more. If Missouri has proven anything thus far this season, it’s that they are capable of beating good teams. If the Tigers have plans of hanging around in this year’s dance, they’re going to have to turn things around, and the sooner the better.