There can be no question at this point in the season that the guys on this team are tough. They have been hit with setback after setback since even before the season started, and they've never stopped fighting. They hit another new low last Tuesday when team leader Wes Clark went down for the season, and it wouldn't have been at all surprising if they'd just folded and faded into the night. Instead, they responded with a desperate, clawing performance against a beatable Mississippi State, which is impressive. Unfortunately, because this season is just determined to ruin everything, it just wasn't enough. Let's look at the numbers.
27 and 7
Perhaps the biggest shame about this game is that it wasted an absolute monster of a performance by Jonathan Williams III. He started slow, only scoring 4 points in the first half on a jumper and a layup, but the mild-mannered sophomore had had enough after halftime.
Williams said he was really angry at halftime. "So I just came out and tried to play as hard as I can."— Steve Walentik (@Steve_Walentik) February 14, 2015
Apparently being angry was helpful, because he exploded for 23 points in the second half. He was everywhere, hitting 3s, driving the lane, grabbing offensive rebounds, and hitting free throws. Williams has been largely underwhelming in conference play, as opposing defenses have learned to force him to his right and collapse without fear of outside shooters, but on Saturday, we got another glimpse of just how good he can be.
That's the number of free throws hit by players not named Williams and Shamburger. The foul counts were disparate between the two teams, and as Mizzou fans, it's easy to pair that with all of Mississippi State's flopping and get frustrated about the officiating costing us a close game. The reality, though, is that this team was bad at getting to the line before, and when Wes Clark went down with a dislocated elbow, it lost its player most capable of driving the paint and drawing contact. Gill-Caesar did a better job of it before his injury in the Illinois game, but he's looked largely tentative about braving the rugby scrum that is the paint in SEC play. Wright is mostly a jump shooter at this stage, and Tramaine Isabell is still on the bench. Keith Shamburger did an admirable job of being aggressive and drawing fouls, but he's just not big enough to absorb contact from big, physical players, or quick enough to avoid it entirely. Until our guys develop the mental and physical toughness to drive through contact (and our defense learns to stop fouling so much), we're going to keep seeing these foul differentials.
Since getting blasted off the court at Rupp Arena, Mizzou has struggled mightily to score the ball, rarely making it even to 60 points. Against Mississippi State and all reason, they found some offensive efficiency despite playing without one of their best playmakers. Unfortunately, the defense struggled, and allowed Mississippi State to score 77 points. That the offense played this well despite the collective egg laid by all backcourt players not named Keith is even more amazing, but it's not good enough when you're allowing a team like Mississippi State to score 77 points.
15.9 and 4.5
Roquez Johnson and Craig Sword are averaging 9.1 free throw attempts per game this season and hitting them at about a 70% rate. Yesterday, they shot 25 free throws and hit almost 90% of them. All told, they shot 15.9 more free throws than you'd expect, and, in doing so, hit 4.5 more of them than you'd expect. You may notice that Mizzou lost this game by 3 points. We know, at this point in the season, that our guys are pretty foul-prone on defense, but that's a big swing that more than covered the difference in the game. Sometimes, basketball is just stupid.
Let's end on a positive note. Nobody on the team not named Wes Clark has had a rougher time this season than Ryan Rosburg and D'Angelo Allen. Both guys have struggled desperately to contribute on a team that needs contributors, especially on the offensive end, and both guys obviously totally lost confidence in their ability to contribute anything. Allen showed no interest in shooting the ball prior to the last two games, and Rosburg looked so afraid of the free throw line that he shied away from contact. Both guys have had a little redemption, and they combined to contribute 19 points against Mississippi State. All we can hope for now is that they keep building on that.
There's a lot that goes into a season this bad. It'd be nice to be able to blame it on Frank Haith, or Kim Anderson, or the players, or the refs, or the NCAA, or Mike Alden, or the time-traveling ghost of Hitler, but the reality is that this is the perfect storm, and things wouldn't be nearly this bad if all sorts of circumstances and bad decisions hadn't combined to send Mizzou into the abyss. A big part of it is just an issue of experience - experience playing against college level competition, and experience playing with this team. They need to learn how to play tough and aggressive - be the hammer, not the nail. They'll probably get there. But they're not there yet.
There's not much basketball left to play this year, and the prospect of winning any more games seems slim at best. Let's hope they steal one somewhere between here and season's end, but let's be realistic - a lot of what's causing us to lose games happened months ago. We just have to ride out the aftermath and pick up the pieces for next year.