It’s no secret this Missouri basketball season has been tough sledding the first month of the season. The Tigers have taken a shocking loss at home to Kansas City, a tough loss on the road against Liberty, and they’ve been blown out by Florida State. However, over the course of the next month, they’ll get plenty of chances to change the story of their season.
In their next seven games, the Tigers will face five teams ranked 25th or better in KenPom. It all starts with Kansas, who they’ll face on the road in the first Border War game in almost a decade, and then travel to St. Louis for the annual Braggin Rights game. After the holidays, things don’t get easier, either as they’ll still have Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas waiting for them. There aren’t any more mid-major Eastern Illinois games on the schedule, so it’s go time for the Tigers.
“I’ve never been concerned with the opponents,” Cuonzo Martin said when the Tigers took down Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in the NAIA earlier this season. “Wins are hard to come by, you never know when you get your next.” However, Martin still knows this is where things are going to get real for his team. “It’s a street fight from this point on,” he said. “As a player, as a coach I love the challenge, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Before the Tigers can beat another team, however, they’ll need to stop beating themselves. Currently the Tigers are 309th and 313th in the country in effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage, respectively. If they’re going to elevate their game to their competition, they’ll need to start by making more shots and stop giving their opponents extra possessions.
Cuonzo Martin has preached the Tigers needing to be able to find ways to win games without making shots, but against competition like this, improvement is the only option. Even with the early season struggles, this team has managed to keep perspective that if they can continue to improve and find their groove, anything might begin to turn their way.
“We are playing for March,” transfer PG Amari Davis said after the Tigers were beaten by FSU. “Like coach said, this game right here is a learning process. So you know, we want to go back, look at film, look at what we could do better, and go from there.”
Since that quote, however, the rollercoaster season for the Tigers has continued, but perhaps a couple of big rivalry games will be just what the Tigers need to really lock in and make those improvements with a little extra on the line.
“It’s the best game on our schedule,” Kansas Head Coach Bill Self said of Saturday’s Border War game. “You can talk about Baylor, Kentucky, or Texas, but this is the best game on our schedule.”
A strong performance in the Border War could go a long with fan and team confidence alike as the Tigers’ schedule picks up. However, while the Border War could bring out the best in Mizzou, Cuonzo Martin knows that the moment brings a lot of pressure, too.
“Maintain your composure first and foremost,” Martin said about his message to his team before the Eastern Illinois game. “Continue to take offensive rebounds into the paint and just play basketball once the ball is tipped.”
On Saturday we’ll find out if that message resonated, and the Tigers are ready for the gauntlet that awaits them.