When Missouri hosted Tennessee in a battle of top-15 teams to open SEC play, the Volunteers jumped all over the Tigers early and ran them out of their home gym. In the weeks since, head coach Cuonzo Martin has repeatedly referred to that loss, Missouri’s first of the season, as a tough pill to swallow, saying “that wasn’t us.”
Saturday night, his team had the chance to prove it. This time, it was Missouri who landed the first punch, frustrating Tennessee with its defense and jumping out to a 13-point lead in the first 10 minutes. The Tigers would go on to win 73-64, leading for all but 35 seconds in a statement victory. Missouri (10-2, 4-2) now sits alone in second place of the SEC standings and has racked up five Quadrant I wins, second-most in the country.
Below is our full report on the win, starting with five things we learned.
* The past couple games, Missouri has won in spite of Xavier Pinson. The junior point guard had a combined nine points and nine turnovers across the two contests. As a result, he played fewer than 20 minutes both times, something he had yet to do all season.
Against Tennessee, Pinson starred. Prior to Saturday’s game, Pinson revealed, he sat down with Martin to watch film and dissect his recent struggles. Martin’s message: Attack the basket more. The team could live with a few turnovers, he told Pinson, if they came when he was moving North to South and looking for his shot.
Message received. Pinson erupted for a game-high 27 points, including 19 of Missouri’s first 32. He shot 10-14 from the field, with five of those makes being layups. Entering this game, Tennessee hadn’t allowed an opposing player to score 20 points all season. Pinson hit that mark with 19:45 still to play.
“The biggest key and part of our game plan is having him get downhill, get in the paint, make plays,” Martin said. “(Pinson) is effective when he’s going North and South and attacking. When he’s East and West and moving the ball side-to-side, he’s not assertive, he’s not aggressive. We need him downhill, making plays.”
Martin said Pinson set the tone with his defense. Missouri racked up 10 takeaways in the first 10 minutes of game time (more on that shortly), and Pinson had two of them. That, in turn, led to opportunities to get out in transition and attack the basket, and Pinson took advantage.
He didn’t do all of his damage as a driver, however. He also made all three of his three-point shots — an area in which he was really struggling prior to Saturday. He entered the game just 12-47 from behind the arc on the season. Knocking down shots from the perimeter, Pinson said, made getting to the basket even easier.
“When the shot is falling, guys got to, of course, guard a little tighter,” Pinson said. “A player of my speed, if somebody is guarding you that tight, it’s kind of, I wouldn’t say easier, but you have a wide open lane. So you gotta take advantage of those things.”
Pinson did most of his damage early, helping Missouri build the first-half lead it would never relinquish. However, when the team needed a couple clutch buckets to keep Tennessee at arm’s length down the stretch, he delivered.
At one point in the second half, Missouri went nearly four-and-a-half minutes without a point. Tennessee used that time to cut the Tiger lead to eight points with 6:43 to play. Pinson ended the run when, left open at the top of the key, he coolly sank a 20-foot jumper. The Tigers would then score two more quick buckets to extend the lead back to 14. Later, with Tennessee within nine with two minutes to play, Pinson delivered a dagger when he drove into the lane, spun from right to left and scooped a shot past a defender, off the backboard and in.
“I feel like the first time we played them I just came off the screen and let them stop me,” Pinson said of his mindset, “and I probably swung it and stood still or made the offense stagnant. So it was just getting downhill for me, and if not, swinging it, keep moving and keep cutting and screening.”
* Pinson wasn’t the only member of the Missouri backcourt to put up big numbers. Dru Smith continued his recent scoring surge by chipping in 18 points and four rebounds.
Smith, who only scored six points during the first matchup between Missouri and Tennessee, has now scored at least 15 points in each of the Tigers’ past three games. Normally, Smith’s calling card is efficiency, but he had to attempt 18 shots, his most in a game since transferring to Missouri, to get his 18 points against Tennessee. That’s okay with Martin, however. During Missouri’s COVID-19-induced pause, Martin said the coaching staff got on Smith about being more assertive on the offensive end, and he has delivered.
“I think the coaches are just wanting me to be a little bit more aggressive, taking those shots when they’re open,” Smith said. “So I think just a little bit of both, just kind of playing in the flow of the game but also trying to make sure that I’m being aggressive and trying to make plays for myself and the other guys.”
Smith didn’t just excel on the offensive end, Martin noted. Tennessee’s starting backcourt of Keon Johnson and Santiago Vescovi combined for just 11 points and seven turnovers. Martin credited Smith for contributing to that.
“Like a Jontay Porter, those guys perform on both ends of the floor,” Martin said. “And that’s his game. He’s done a great job defending, shutting guys down, and he’s scoring the ball.
* Missouri’s star the past few games, Jeremiah Tilmon, had a quiet night, at least by his recent standards. Tilmon, who entered Saturday having averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game across the past four contests, finished with nine points and five boards against the Volunteers.
Still, his teammates and head coach said the big man made his presence felt on both ends of the floor. Offensively, Tilmon drew constant double and even triple teams from Tennessee’s defense. That attention helped open up more easy scoring opportunities for his teammates, something Missouri struggled to find in the first matchup against Tennessee. After converting just seven of 17 layups three weeks ago, Missouri made 13 of 26 shots at the rim this time around.
“At some points, it looked like they were sending three guys at him whenever he got that ball in the post,” Smith said of Tilmon. “So it was definitely getting us some open looks, the lanes were a little more open, and even though he wasn’t scoring as much tonight, he still had a huge impact on the game.”
Martin was even more impressed with Tilmon’s presence on the defensive end of the floor. Matched up against Tennessee’s leading scorer and preseason first-team all-SEC forward John Fulkerson, Tilmon more than held his own. Fulkerson didn’t even attempt his first field goal until more than 27 minutes had passed. He finished the game with seven points on three of seven shooting. Perhaps most importantly, Tilmon avoided major foul trouble, staying on the court for 30 minutes.
Martin said he challenged Tilmon before the game to “dominate” Fulkerson. Tilmon, playing the most confident basketball of his college career, rose to the occasion.
“I said, I want you to think about something, Jeremiah,” said Martin. “Fulkerson’s a good player, he’s a fifth-year senior. But I said, Jeremiah, you’re 260 pounds. Fulkerson is 215, maybe 220 pounds. Just think about that for a minute. I said, you have to dominate the game. Whether you’re scoring the ball, you have to put so much pressure on him physically that eventually he gives in and other stuff happens. … But I think Jeremiah really understood, I’m as strong as anybody in this league, man, and I’ll put pressure. And he did just that all night.”
* Missouri has not always fired on all cylinders at the outset of its contests this season, but for the second game in a row, the Tigers’ execution in the first few minutes proved the difference in the game. Starting fast was especially important against Tennessee, which is well-suited to playing from ahead thanks to its slow pace and swarming defense, as it proved when it jumped out to a 23-4 lead at Mizzou Arena. This time, just more than five minutes into the matchup, Missouri led 11-3.
“They jumped out on us quick at home, so we knew we wanted to pick up that defensive pressure this time, not let the ball swing easily,” Smith explained, “and we were able to get a couple turnovers, couple live ball turnovers there at the beginning and get out and run.”
As Smith alluded to, Missouri built its early lead with its defense. The Tigers denied drives and jumped in front of passes, forcing Tennessee, which entered the game averaging just 10.6 turnovers per contest, to turn the ball over 10 times before 10 minutes had elapsed. The majority of those turnovers led to transition opportunities for Missouri — huge for a team that struggled mightily to get its halfcourt offense going in the first meeting.
“We set the tone, getting in the passing lanes, being aggressive,” Martin said. “If they were going to beat us, they were going to beat us playing the way we wanted to dictate tempo” Aggressive, get in their face, making them make plays, catching the ball out and then trying to make them make one-on-one plays. I thought our guys did a great job of embracing that challenge, because they have a lot of guys that can make plays off the dribble.”
* This win is significant for Missouri not just because of the number next to Tennessee’s name or what it adds to the Tigers’ postseason resume, but because it verifies that the worst loss of the season is more the exception than the rule. Multiple times since that loss, Martin has called it a game he’ll never truly get over, not just because his team flopped on a big stage, but because he felt the Tigers got out-toughed.
“You have to give all the credit to Tennessee beating us at our place,” he said. “They won the game. But that wasn’t us as a team, and our guys knew that, and that was a hard pill for me to swallow, just from a toughness standpoint. You’re going to lose some games, it’s just, we allowed them to move the ball, everything you can think of, they did it, and it was like it was just practice for them. And our guys saw that, they understand that.”
Saturday, it was Missouri that set the tone early and made the gritty plays necessary to hold onto its lead. The Tigers won the rebounding battle 34-29, they outscored Tennessee by eight in the paint and drew even with the Volunteers on second-chance points. Every player deserves credit for the transformation, but Martin specifically praised two guys for making the type of plays Missouri missed in its loss to Tennessee: Kobe Brown and Mitchell Smith.
Brown, in particular, made a few huge plays down the stretch after struggling early. The sophomore forward didn’t score in the first half and picked up his fourth foul just 22 minutes into the game. Yet he went on to play 10 more minutes. He knocked down a clutch corner three-pointer to cap a 7-0 run, then stole a pass and took it the length of the floor, where he drew a foul. But most impressive to Martin was Brown’s rebounding. Five of his team-high seven rebounds came in the second half, including several on the offensive end that kept possessions alive.
“He was tough,” Martin said of Brown. “I just challenged Kobe and Mitch at the half, like, man, you guys got to bring it to the table. They got two or three guys helping a lot on Tilmon, we need some of those offensive rebounds on the backside, then we need you guys to be elite defensively and do your job. … And both of those guys embraced the challenge and they played well in the second half, in my opinion.”
Martin didn’t miss an opportunity to tout his team’s resume after the game, however. He said Saturday showed that when Missouri can take care of the ball and knock down a few three-pointers, it can play with anybody in the country. When the rankings update on Monday, he believes they should reflect that.
“Like I said to our guys, a top-10 team won the game today,” Martin said. “And I truly feel that way, because I’ve watched these rankings — and I don’t get consumed with it. All of a sudden you’ve got a team that jumped and wins that game, wins this game. Well, let’s see how we jump. Let’s see how we jump. I just think, if you’re going to do your job, do it the right way, and we’ve earned it against a top 10 team in a tough environment, won the basketball game, and it’s my fight for our players from that standpoint, because they’ve earned it.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Honestly, it’s tough to find something Missouri could have done much better. The Tigers came out either tied or ahead in every single statistical category. If you wanted to nit-pick, you could point to Tennessee getting, and converting, quite a few open looks from three-point range, but Martin did note after the game that there were certain players Missouri was content to allow to shoot because Tennessee’s primary method of attack is off the bounce. And really, it’s a testament to how well the Tigers played that they could allow an opponent to shoot nearly 44 percent from the field, 41 percent from three-point range and win — on the road against a top-10 opponent.
STAR OF THE GAME: Pinson is the clear choice. After really struggling to find a rhythm the past two games — and spending more time than usual on the bench as a result — he was the best player on the floor against Tennessee. His performance not only illustrated how his elite quickness and finishing ability can elevate Missouri as a whole when he’s on, but how he’s matured as an individual. Pinson from the past two years likely doesn’t bounce back from two rough outings this well.
“I just want him to be aggressive,” Martin said of Pinson. “Whether it’s two points or 20 points, he knows the things that I demand of him. But it’s not necessarily 27 points. If he scores it, great, if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. But he’s gotta defend, rebound, he’s got to play hard all the time, and he did that.”
WHAT IT MEANS: After Missouri lost two games in a six-day span, there was some doubt about the legitimacy of the Tigers’ ranking. That should now be erased. Missouri is alone in second place in the SEC standings. Prior to Saturday, the Tigers hadn’t beaten a top-10 team on the road since 2012 against No. 3 Baylor. Perhaps most important, this team is putting together a heck of a resume for the postseason. The only team with as many or more wins against Quadrant I competition than the Tigers this season: No. 1 Gonzaga. We are about at the point where the discussion is no longer about whether Missouri will return to the NCAA Tournament this season but whether the Tigers can grab a top-four seed.
QUOTABLE: “It’s good to see the three-ball go down, because I know the guys put so much time into it, and I knew if we were able to knock the three-ball down and take care of the basketball, I think that takes us to another level as a team.” — Cuonzo Martin