In the beginning of Missouri’s Saturday evening tilt against Kansas, Mizzou flashed its biggest strengths.
The Tigers started out 5-for-10 from behind the arc, assisted on four buckets and were creating a plethora of deflections on defense. It led to a 20-12 scoreline that stunned the Jayhawk faithful.
Then, some of the team’s year-long struggles started to rear their ugly heads.
Cold shooting was the first issue that cropped up. KU closed the first half on a 14-0 run thanks in large part to the Tigers missing their final six shots. After Mizzou began the game by creating a plethora of open looks, the shot quality diminished immensely as the opening half went on. The team showed marked improvement in that regard during the second period, but it was not enough to overcome the 12-point advantage that Kansas built with its late-half rally.
“We knew that they would go on a run, but we just weren’t able to score with them,” Dennis Gates said. “In the second half, I thought it was just a drought by both teams and free throws determined it.”
A cold shooting streak was also an issue late in the game against Jackson State when Mizzou’s only two points in the final three minutes came from the free throw line. And, in the second half of the game against Memphis, the Tigers shot 5-for-26 from the floor.
I’m not presenting new information in saying that Gates’ two teams in Columbia have relied heavily upon shooting at a consistent, efficient clip from the floor. If they don’t, then the pace and rhythm of the offense suffer.
The hypothetical idea is that Gates has assembled a roster of high-caliber shooters (Honor, Carter, Grill, Bates, Vanover) who can offset each other’s cold stretches. Unfortunately, there have been a handful of occasions this season in which only one player (or less) has been in an offensive rhythm.
The cold shooting became less of an issue in the second half, but two other season-long trends hindered the Tigers throughout this game as well.
The first was a free-throw shooting disparity. The Tigers had shot 145 free throws compared to 174 from their opponents coming into the game on Saturday, with Gates consistently labeling that as a disturbing sign that needed fixing.
Against Kansas, the charity stripe was yet again a difficult place for Mizzou to reach. Kansas shot 23 free throws to the Tigers’ 13, and all of Mizzou’s attempts came in the second half.
Granted, a focus on perimeter shooting and passing the ball like a hot potato can take away from a team’s chances at drawing fouls. That is just a side effect of the Gates style of offense.
But, with players like Sean East II, Nick Honor, Tamar Bates and Noah Carter who can create off the bounce and are not afraid of contact, there is plenty of potential for this team to rack up more free points. The second half was encouraging in how the Tigers were able to get to the line, but a couple of key misses late in the game were somewhat discouraging.
“They [Kansas] did a great job of getting to the free throw line,” Gates said. “We shot zero in the first half, and I thought that the game was physical enough to where we could have at least come away with a couple, which would have broken their momentum [at the end of the first half].”
Lastly, winning the battle on the boards was yet again a struggle.
It was an issue last season, and it continues to be one this year. Again, with the style of basketball that Mizzou plays and the makeup of the roster, this squad never had the potential to be a top-tier rebounding team. But, you have to at least hold serve on the glass in big games.
Mizzou was out-rebounded 42-25 in this one, marking the fifth game that has happened this season. That may not seem like a terrible number, but add on the fact that the Tigers have been out-rebounded by three of the four power conferences teams that they have played this season and it becomes a discouraging sign, especially with SEC play looming.
“Our perimeter defense was excellent, but we have to be able to secure some of those long second-chance rebounds,” Gates said. “Those allowed them to get plenty of points in that first half, 10 out of their 41.”
None of these trends are entirely damning, and there were certainly some positives to take away from this game (East’s playmaking, Vanover’s second half, limiting Dickinson, etc.). This team has the talent and depth to either overcome or fix some of these issues, and this coaching staff is fully capable of making the adjustments required to do so.
How quickly that can happen and how consistent the Tigers can be in those aspects now become the most important questions to answer.