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Missouri has a fouling problem

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Missouri’s defense is nearly elite, save for one fatal flaw — they put their opponents on the line far too often.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

If you took any time to watch Missouri play Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, you likely spent a fair amount of time wondering, “Hey, where’s (fill in the blank)?”

You could put a few names into that slot. Jeremiah Tilmon. Xavier Pinson, Reed Nikko. But the chances are, if you wondered where someone was, chances are they were in foul trouble.

Fouls weren’t the only problem Missouri had against the Wildcats on Saturday. The Tigers shot 36.2 percent from two-point range. They made 64.7 percent of their free throws. They had eight shots blocked. But when you put the the country’s fourth best free throw shooting team on the line 30 times, you’re making things way harder on yourself than they need to be. Doubly so if you’re in the not-so-friendly confines of Rupp Arena.

Now, you may argue with the validity of several calls made against the Tigers, and you probably wouldn’t be wrong to do so. I was only half joking when I called Saturday’s game a #RuppShow — you can only watch a referee get in a kid’s face to call a foul so many times before you start to think that maaaaaybe the TV time and raucous crowd is getting to their heads a little bit.

However, you’d also be hard-pressed to argue that the refs were deliberately calling the game for the Wildcats. The fact of the matter is, Missouri has built its brand under Cuonzo Martin — and especially in 2020 — on playing hard-nosed, physical basketball. It’s a style that works for their personnel, one that has earned them hard-fought wins over Temple on the road and against the Illini at Braggin’ Rights. But when you live by the sword, you die by the sword, and the Tigers certainly did the latter on Saturday. Not every referee will allow you to bump shoulders every time down the court. Some might not even let you get chippy with the opposing players.

It would be another thing, too, if personal fouls weren’t already a major issue for the Tigers. Much of the season has been spent vaunting the defense and maligning the offense, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop and look at the former. It doesn’t take a lot of careful research to discover that Missouri’s defense, elite in so many areas, has one glaring hole.

Missouri Defense (KenPom)

Adj. Efficiency Avg. Poss. Length Effective FG% Turnover% Off. Reb. % FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Block% Steal% Non-Stl TO%
Adj. Efficiency Avg. Poss. Length Effective FG% Turnover% Off. Reb. % FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Block% Steal% Non-Stl TO%
27th 306th 5th 36th 53rd 292nd 5th 32nd 341st 118th 55th 68th

Well, technically two glaring holes. But you get the picture.

Missouri’s physical style has paid dividends in a few games, but the Tigers are also racking up the fouls at an alarming rate. They currently ranked third in the SEC for fouls per game (behind South Carolina and Alabama). Five different players currently commit four or more fouls per 40 minutes — three of them are starters.

We’ve talked ad nauseam about the foul troubles of Jeremiah Tilmon. We’ve been talking about them for years. But what about his backup, Reed Nikko, who we’ve long heralded as a positional defensive stalwart? He leads the team in 7.7, by far a career high. Or how about Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson, the dual point guards who give Missouri ball handlers to spare in tight minutes? Most of the time, one of them is dealing with foul trouble. Mitchell Smith, who has performed admirably in his last few outings as a starter, has the greatest fouls created/drawn disparity amongst the starters, committing about three more per 40 minutes than he draws.

We’re still not halfway through the 2019-2020 Missouri basketball season, and there’s a lot of time left for Missouri to get back onto the NCAA bubble. Losing to Kentucky at Kentucky doesn’t do much to change those fortunes. There’s still a lot for us to learn about how the Tigers will fare in the coming weeks.

One thing we have learned about Missouri, though, is that they have a small margin for error. On a night when shots aren’t falling, the defense has to pave the way. More often than not, this is the case.

However, until the Tigers clean up their fouling (better hands, smarter positioning, active feet) the defense will have one crack in its sometimes impenetrable armor. Teams like Kentucky — the teams Missouri needs to beat to muscle its way back into the March picture — will be able to exploit this flaw. Missouri fans just have to hope that it’s not beyond the point of fixing.