I certainly hope Missouri beating the pants off Chicago State didn’t make people think the Tigers’ offensive problems went away. Sure, it was nice to see Torrence Watson crack his shooting slump, but the Tigers were more likely to get a dose of reality when they trekked to Lexington to kick off SEC play.
Since joining the conference, the Tigers have not won at Rupp Arena, and most of the games haven’t been competitive. In 2013, a Phil Pressey-led attack nearly clipped the worst team of John Calipari’s tenure in overtime, but fell 90-83. Kim Anderson’s first trip coincided with (arguably) Cal’s best team, and the Tigers got crushed by 49 points. A 34-point loss was a little better in 2016, and in 2018, the Wildcats avenged an earlier loss to Missouri by winning by 21 points. So, judging by recent trips Mizzou is making progress, right?
Kidding aside, this game unfolded about as you’d expect, with Kentucky making a few more free throws to create a bigger margin than was originally projected. If that sounds boring, let’s get more granular.
- If you’re a KenPom type, the “Four Factors” weren’t kind to Missouri. Out of effective-field-goal percentage, free-throw rate, turnover rate and offensive rebound rate, Missouri only won a lone category. That was in large part to Dru Smith, who had four steals. If you just go category by category, Missouri lost every single one of them except for steals.
- The real disparity was at the free throw line. Before you completely rip the officiating and accuse the refs of home-cooking for UK, keep in mind Missouri fouls — a lot.
Meanwhile, #Mizzou also rates 266th nationally in foul rate defensively.— Matt Harris (@MattJHarris85) January 4, 2020
So, you have a Kentucky team with guys good at creating free throws against a team that can be handsy.
Tough and aggressive man-to-man defense tends to find a whistle, even moreso when the players are younger or Jeremiah Tilmon. But while Mizzou was fouling a lot, UK was converting and Mizzou’s Free Throw defense didn’t step up. In other words, here’s how the scoring margin looks when broken down by shot category:
- 2-point shooting: UK plus-2
- 3-point shooting: MU plus-6
- Free-throw shooting: UK plus-16
Missouri made UK take tough shots, but they also fouled them too often.
As for a positive, MU limited its turnovers. If you told me MU’s turnover rate would stick at 16.9 percent for the remainder of the season, I’d jump on it in a heartbeat.
Your Trifecta: Kobe Brown, Dru Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon
On the season: Dru Smith 20 points, Mark Smith 19 points, Jeremiah Tilmon 15 points, Javon Pickett 10 points, Kobe Brown 6 points, Xavier Pinson 5 points, Mitchell Smith 3 points, Torrence Watson 3 points
- When you have three players, who are central to your rotation, combine for 60 minutes and a negative game score, that’s not a good sign.
- When two of your trifecta in game score are an injured Jeremiah Tilmon, who was also (again) in foul trouble, plus a reserve in Kobe Brown, that’s not a good sign.
- Dru Smith continues to dutifully fill the stat sheet but was second in the trifecta after a 5-of-13 shooting day. That included going 4 of 12 inside the arc. Smith missed three layups and four shots inside of 12 feet.
- More bad stats. This time, they’re for Mark Smith — and a little more macro in scope. Against top-50 teams in Ken Pom, Smith is averaging 7.5 points and shooting 27 percent from behind the arc. One of those games was Oklahoma, where Smith made his final three 3-pointers in the waning minutes to finish with 18 points. Remove those garbage-time jumpers, and Smith is only averaging 6 points per game and hitting 21 percent from deep.
Cuonzo Martin said after the game he thought Kentucky won the battle of the front court. Maybe they did, with Nick Richards keeping them afloat until Immanuel Quickley hit a couple of 3-pointers. The rest of UK’s first-half points, save one basket by Tyrese Maxey, came from the foul line. Those foul shots followed whistles against Pinson, Pickett, and Brown.
But the problem here continues to come down to offense.
When Xavier Pinson is playing well, he’s capable of creating chances in isolation. But virtually every other player looks for shots within the flow of offense. On Saturday, Kentucky ran the Tigers’ shooters off the 3-point line, and without the consistent presence of Tilmon — whether that’s the result of fouls or injuries — the attack boils down to Dru Smith being crafty out of pick-and-rolls.
The good news is there aren’t many more games on the schedule with the same degree of difficulty. Playing at Rupp Arena is a brutal way to start to SEC play. However, the rest of the SEC is still tightly bunched, and there’s no reason to think Missouri can’t navigate their way to better offensive performances.
Other SEC Scores (home team in italics):
- Auburn 80, Mississippi State 68
- LSU 78, Tennessee 64
- Florida 104, Alabama 98 (2OT)
- Arkansas 69, Texas A&M 59
- SMU 92, Vanderbilt 81 (OT)
- Wichita State 74, Ole Miss 54
- Georgia 65, Memphis 62