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Rock M Roundtable: Are the Tigers an SEC contender?

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Missouri is undefeated and ranked headed into conference play. Have we seen enough from the Tigers to think they could challenge for the top spot?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Saturday, Tiger fans. We hope that you, like most Americans, are ignoring the traditional aspects of Boxing Day and keeping up your tree and decorations to the bitter end of December and beyond. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sorry you had to read this.

One of the biggest gifts 2020 has given us as a fanbase is the re-emergence of Missouri basketball. Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers are possibly the best unit he’s had in Columbia, led by a wealth of experience and dependable bench options. They’ve ridden these strengths to an undefeated record, an already-impressive tournament resume and a Top 15 rankings in the Associated Press poll.

On Wednesday, things get a little more complicated. Mizzou wilI open its slate of SEC games against Tennessee, the only team ranked ahead of the Tigers in the polls. The Volunteers were picked as the preseason favorites to win the conference and, after the (presumptive) fall of Kentucky, Missouri has risen as the next biggest challenger.

It’s always dangerous to draw too many assumptions about one team through non-conference play, but the Tigers have proven an awful lot through their first six games: they’ve notched a true road win; they bested a Top 10 team on their home court; they picked off another Top 25 team on a neutral court; and they’ve beaten two strong mid-majors who could dance in March.

Given that the Tigers have a week between the Braves and the Volunteers, we wanted to step back and take stock of what we’ve learned so far. So we gathered the Rock M brain trust to discuss the non-conference schedule and everything Missouri accomplished... as well as what they may accomplish still.

Most people who followed Missouri thought they would be better than their preseason slotting. But after an undefeated non-conference schedule, Missouri enters SEC play as a perceived contender. Do the Tigers have a realistic shot at a conference title?

NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Snelling, Site Manager: I think anything is possible in this weird COVID-impacted season. But I think Missouri needs to beat Tennessee at home on Wednesday to be considered a real contender. The Vols are the best team in the league, and Mizzou is the only other team currently ranked. As I said on the pod, I don’t think Missouri is close to being the most talented team in the league, but they are good enough to beat these teams. LSU, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee will all probably have a few things to say about Mizzou’s effort to reign at the end of the year.

Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: I need more proof. A stable roster blunted the worst impacts of a disrupted offseason. Meanwhile, MU’s continuity has been a distinct advantage against opponents like Oregon and Wichita State. But as we’ve seen in stretches against Liberty and Bradley, a scouting report is coming together on this team. Once you get into SEC play, there’s an even greater familiarity with MU’s personnel, and almost half the conference — Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt — saw Barcelona last year. They’ll be ready. Whether MU’s adaptations make it a contender is going to require more than six games to gauge.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: Not to kick a good program when it’s down, but now that Kentucky is out of the running (fingers crossed), anything is possible. Tennessee is probably the presumptive favorite at this point, and Missouri will get a chance at them in the first game of conference play. Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi have all impressed early on as well, but they’ve each got question marks surrounding their resume. The Razorbacks have yet to play a power conference team, and neither LSU or Ole Miss have beat a team within the KenPom top 100.

Missouri, on the other hand, has toppled two top 25 teams and two mid-major conference contenders. On the strength of what they’ve shown on the floor, you have to believe the Tigers are at least one of the top two or three SEC teams with a shot.

Kortay Vincent, Basketball Beat Writer: I think this Tigers team is not only talented but a team of destiny, too. But with that being said, I can’t see them beating out Tennessee for the conference championship. Tennessee’s depth is unparalleled, and they seem to be a cut above the Tigers. With that in mind, we will learn a lot about the two teams next Wednesday when they open conference play. I also don’t think anyone should count out Kentucky, yet. I know they have had an atrocious start to this season, but conference play is a clean slate, and that team is talented with a lack of chemistry. Maybe conference play will allow them to develop that chemistry. Nevertheless, they are still a dark horse, and I have Tennessee at the top, and Mizzou as a close second.

Karen Steger, Madame Editor: I still see Tennessee taking the top spot, but if the Tigers’ results thus far are any indication — and if Kentucky really can’t get it in gear — I don’t see why Missouri can’t be in the top tier and maybe challenge for second. We just don’t know what is going to happen in this wild COVID season. When you consider the Tigers have actually had competition to play against — unlike some of the others who have not played challenging schedules — and that they have yet to have a game where everyone is firing on all cylinders, Missouri could be dangerous.

While the Tigers’ experience has been a boon, they’re mostly returning contributors from a middling team last year. What’s been the biggest difference maker in their early season success?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Snelling: A more aggressive approach to the offense, and a focus on transition baskets have made scoring easier. Cuonzo Martin very clearly trusts this team to make good decisions, and even when they don’t he’s provided them a longer leash. They still play good defense, and now with more ball handlers they’re turning the ball over less. Plus, they’ve been healthy. So you have your best players on the court, getting more cracks at the rim and with more possessions, suddenly you’re going to look a little better.

Matt Harris: Cuonzo Martin realized his offensive approach produced quality shots but not the ones his team could convert. So, he’s simplified his sets and embraced pushing the ball on secondary breaks. Early on, it’s panned out. Mizzou’s generated more shots around the rim and boosted its efficiency enough on those plays to offset mediocre perimeter shooting. (People call for MU to shoot less 3s, but the Tigers, in fact, have steadily curbed their attempts during Martin’s tenure.) Getting to the rim, converting at a high rate, and hitting free throws works when you knock down enough jumpers to keep a defense honest.

Josh Matejka: It’s nice not having to worry about injuries to your most important players. Shocking, right? A healthy Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith have made a world of difference for the Tigers, even if they went into annual hibernation for the Braggin’ Rights game. The Tigers probably don’t beat Oregon without Smith’s hot shooting, and Jeremiah Tilmon willed the Tigers to win over Bradley. But even when they’re not hitting big shots, they’re finding small ways to impact the game on the defensive end or the glass. It’s easier to find success running it back with a 15-win team when you simply add two really good players (who were already on the roster) to the mix.

Kortay Vincent: It might seem a little weird, but I think COVID was a blessing for this team. You’ve seen it with Kentucky that you can have all the talent in the world, but if your team can’t play together, you will struggle. This team has had no such struggle. Most of these guys have played a minimum of one season together and most have a couple of seasons with the same guys under their belt. This history together has given them a huge advantage in a season that practice and chemistry can be hard to come by.

Another obvious thing is that the team is healthy this year. Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon both seem like they’ve fully returned from injury, and each has made huge contributions that have to Tiger victories. Most recently from Tilly in the second half against Bradley to avoid an upset.

Karen Steger: I really think the rocky road the vast majority of this team has faced in past few years with injuries and overall bad luck toughened them up. They are winning games that I just can’t see them winning the last few years. There’s no way some of the previous teams would have won the Bradley game the other night. But as X said in an interview recently, they’ve been there before and felt what it was like to lose, and they don’t want to go back there (or something along those lines). And, I know this from talking with RJ Layton, they are truly there for each other. There are no egos. There are no battles or hurt feelings over playing time. It’s amazing what a team can do when they love each other and do what is best for the team, even if it’s not putting themselves on the stat sheet.

I also think the continuation of the faster-paced, transition-heavy offense installed towards the end of last season has helped a lot, giving the players more freedom to move the ball and make decisions within the flow of the offense. Having multiple capable ball handlers in X, Dru, and Drew Buggs has really helped make this work.

As Matt laid out earlier this week, Cuonzo Martin has relied on a variety of lineups, deploying them based on how each game plays out. Which of Martin’s rotational decisions have surprised you, if any?

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Missouri Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Snelling: I don’t know if I’ve been surprised by anything with the rotations. With a healthy Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon this is about what you might’ve seen last year. It’s allowed him to play Javon Pickett less, and even Dru Smith less. I guess i’m surprised we haven’t seen Ed Chang at all, but I’d expect there’s a reason for it. And at some point we’ll see Torrence Watson. But realistically you can’t play 10 guys a lot of minutes. Most teams are going to hover around 8, and Mizzou has their 8.

Matt Harris: The erasure of Torrence Watson. Whether it’s total, though, remains open for debate. Coming into the season, I assumed Watson and Javon Pickett’s playing time would hinge on the scouting report and figuring out in the run of play which should get the lion’s share. That hasn’t happened—at all. That being said, it’s not hard to imagine Watson re-emerging. Outside of Mark Smith, MU still struggles to hit jumpers that ensure adequate spacing exists for guards like Pinson and Dru Smith to play off the bounce. If the Tigers shot 32 percent from 3-point range, which is around the Division I average, they might be able to get away with it. However, if shooting remains mired in a funk, Martin could turn to the Whitfield product.

Josh Matejka: Given Missouri’s lack of shooting depth, I’m actually a little surprised Torrence Watson hasn’t been given more of a shot. I understand that his offensive game is incredibly limited, and that Missouri needs guys who are able to get to the rim and the glass. But Watson isn’t a bad defender, and it’s not as if he can shoot much worse than anyone else on the floor. That being said, I understand the rationale behind why Watson has been relegated to a, “break in case of emergency,” role. I’m just a little surprised he hasn’t gotten more of a look.

Kortay Vincent: It’s been weird not seeing any Torrence Watson, but I also think the revolving door at the point guard spot has been interesting. Pinson and Smith are clearly the most consistent and important players, but Drew Buggs has allowed the two a lot of rest. I didn’t think Buggs would play as much as he has with the way Pinson finished last season, and Dru Smith always being Mr. Reliable. Despite not expecting this, I love what Buggs does for this team. It allows for Dru Smith being in foul trouble to be less troublesome and gives a change of pace to the other guards this team has.

Karen Steger: Same as everyone else, I am also surprised that we haven’t seen much of Torrence Watson, given the team’s shooting woes at times, but I have to imagine Coach has a reason for it and that we will see him at some point. In Dave Matter’s chat a few weeks ago, he mentioned Martin had talked about redshirting Watson, but with the blanket extra year of eligibility, there was no reason to. I’d also really like to catch a glimpse of Ed Chang since he has, if I remember correctly, a decent three point percentage from his last stop. So, basically, I’d like to see some of these guys get a shot, because it really can’t hurt on a team that needs some shooting help.

Despite the Tigers’ record, it’s been pointed out that they’re winning a lot of contests playing their, “B-game.” What adjustments does Missouri need to make to consistently reach its A-game?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Snelling: At some point they’re going to shoot the ball better. Mizzou’s A-game is playing in transition, getting above 70 possessions, and shooting above a 60% effective field goal percentage. All while defending at a high level.

It’s rare for any team to play perfect, but outside of Mark Smith, Mizzou just hasn’t had a very good shooting game yet. I realize at this stage we understand they just aren’t a very good shooting team, but I also think they’re better than they’ve shown. And if they can put together a few good shooting performances against the upper end teams in the league, I think Mizzou could see themselves as a real threat to a league championship. Crazy to think about.

Matt Harris: Make enough catch-and-shoot jumpers to maintain spacing. Martin’s regularly touted his teams prowess in practice, but what matters is whether it translates when the lights come on. That’s simply not happening. Dating back to the 2018-19 season, MU players not named Mark Smith have only canned 29.9 percent of unguarded 3-point attempts and averaged just 0.87 points per shot, per Synergy tracking data. In other words, a wide-open look for MU is 21 percent less valuable than for the majority of Division 1.

Now, MU’s papered over that deficiency early on, but as Bradley showed, the ability to sprint back in transition, go under ball-screens and play a pack line can put the Tigers in a box. MU’s guards will soon be greeted by more athletic bigs around the rim in SEC play, putting a potential dent in MU’s efficiency on rim attacks. At some point, you can’t draw a foul each time down the floor. This roster is what it is, but it’ll need to exact some penalty from defenses keen to shrink the floor.

Josh Matejka: Hear me out... what if their B-game is their A-game? That isn’t to suggest Missouri can’t play better than it has. If they make more than 30 percent of their threes in a given game and don’t risk foul trouble, games are going to look a lot better than they did against Bradley. But is there much reason to believe Mizzou is a dramatically better shooting team than they’ve already shown? Maybe if Xavier Pinson’s shooting regresses to the mean? or if Torrence Watson gets some more time and starts knocking down shots? Six games isn’t the biggest of sample sizes, but it’s not nothing. There may be another level Missouri can consistently get to, but until we’ve seen it, I wonder if they’re going to win a lot of games like we’ve seen recently.

Kortay Vincent: If this team would stop shooting so many threes, they’d be a lot better. I know if you’re open you have to shoot, but I feel like they settle for too many threes for being such a poor shooting team. It’s easy to say this team needs to shoot the ball better, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think they’re going to. However, I do think they can improve their shot selection. Fewer threes, maybe no more than 12-15 a game, and I think this team will improve greatly. Let Mark Smith keep shooting and everybody else needs to attack the rim relentlessly and take threes when the defense gives them to you instead of settling. If this team does that, I could see a major uptick in offense.

Karen Steger: Having a number of guys making shots sure would be nice, since it seems like we’ve only been limited to about 2, maybe 3, having good shooting performances a night. The Tigers need to push to play at the pace they want regardless of opponent, all while maintaining good ball control, keeping the fouls down, and limiting their opponents defensively. Oh, and don’t settle for too many threes early in the shot clock. Attack, attack, attack and draw contact. Can they do all this and consistently play an “A” game? I believe so, but I’ll settle for some B+ in there, too.