News broke shortly before tipoff that Missouri’s junior center Jeremiah Tilmon would miss the game. He was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot, and was ruled out “indefinitely.”
Cuonzo Martin has certainly dealt with his fair share of injury troubles during his time leading the Missouri program, so yet another injury to one of his most talented players must have felt particularly crushing.
That being said, Martin has never been one to dwell on any perceived hardships or bad luck. Missouri needed its frontcourt players to step up in the worst way.
Despite the loss, the frontcourt provided a balanced attack for Missouri for most of the game. Kobe Brown and Reed Nikko each finished with six points, while Mitchell Smith contributed 10. It was Smith’s back to back three-pointers with Missouri trailing 40-31 that pulled the Tigers and the crowd back into the game.
With Tilmon out, Smith’s already growing role just got a whole heck of a lot bigger. The Tigers are going to need him to shoot the ball like he did Tuesday (3-6, 2-3). He also was a presence on the boards, hauling in seven rebounds.
The biggest frontcourt performance Tuesday night, however, goes to freshman Tray Jackson. It was Jackson who had struggled to see playing time in recent games. In fact, he had not even scored since Missouri’s win over Morehead State back in November.
On Tuesday, he was a spark. Jackson finished with 11 points, his career high, and grabbed three rebounds. With Missouri trailing 40-36 and with a hint of momentum, Jackson went into overdrive, nailing three jumpers in a row, the last a three-pointer that rolled home.
After trailing 40-31, Missouri had completed a 14-3 run to momentarily lead 45-43. The Tigers would hold the lead as late as 6:41 before capitulating and allowing the Volunteers to go on a crushing 11-0 run.
“I was happy to see the way Tray played,” Martin said postgame. “He has the talent to score the ball.” After Jackson’s burst and a Tennessee timeout, he went back to the bench.
Martin explained that this was due to Jackson being “a little bit winded,” having not experienced significant game reps that are necessary to build stamina in an SEC game environment. He added he is confident Jackson will reach that point of being able to stay on the floor.
A Tray Jackson that can turn into an option to turn to when the team needs a bucket could represent an opportunity to prevent the season from sliding into an abyss. Tilmon’s absence is a major hole, and if Jackson can feature like he did Tuesday, driving aggressively to the rim and nailing step-back jumpers, other teams will quickly take notice.
“I’ve been playing like that (in practice) all year ,”Jackson said. “I just try to play my game, be comfortable, and do what I can.”
Mitchell Smith best summed up how the team and, after Tuesday’s game, the fans will view Jackson going forward. “Once Tray puts it all together, he’s going to be dangerous.”