COLUMBIA, MO. • We start today’s look back at Mizzou’s latest painful loss with a quote from … Tom Crean.
Here’s what the first-year Georgia coach told reporters after Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss, as chronicled by multiple writers covering the game in Athens, Ga.: “It’s all on me. Because I’m the one who decided to keep these guys. It’s all on me. And I get it. Because the last thing I can do with making decisions on keeping guys in the program in the spring is now get overly mad at them because I’m the one who made the decision. So I live with that every day.
“And it doesn’t mean that they’re not great kids. But very few programs, when there’s a (coaching) takeover … a lot of those guys, they move on. That’s what happens when there’s a job change. And I didn’t do that. And so I’m not going to complain. And we’ve just keep doing everything we can to fix it and get better. That's not a knock on them. It is what it is."
By saying he’s not going to complain about the players he inherited from Mark Fox’s regime Crean was pretty much complaining about the players he inherited from Mark Fox’s regime — along with complaining about his decision to keep those kids in the program for his first season. No one's ever accused Crean of biting his tongue.
That’s one approach to take during a coaching transition. It’s not the approach Cuonzo Martin has ever taken at Missouri. The players he inherited from the three-year basketball sinkhole known as the Kim Anderson regime became Martin’s players the day he took over the program in 2017. For at least two of those players, he’s squeezed out more production than they ever delivered under Anderson, the two Jordans, Barnett and Geist. Otherwise, the rest have been mostly inconsistent.
On Saturday, Martin had what might go down as the worst loss of his 55 games at Mizzou. The Tigers played without two starters — three if you count out-for-the-season Jontay Porter — but Martin didn’t fixate on Jeremiah Tilmon’s absence after the game.
“Obviously there’s a void if Jeremiah’s not in there because he’s a big part of what we do,” he said. “Not to make an excuse, but that’s what it is.”
Pointing out Tilmon’s absence wasn’t an excuse, but it’s unmistakably important context when measuring this game. We’ll get to the STAT THAT MATTERS, but here’s another one: 98.
That’s how many minutes out of 200 the Tigers got from scholarship players that Martin brought to Mizzou: freshman Torrence Watson (31, a career-high), freshman Javon Pickett (30), freshman Xavier Pinson (28) and sophomore K.J. Santos (9). Those 98 minutes are by far the fewest Martin’s scholarship recruits have played in a conference game this season, which means the 102 minutes were the most played by recruits from the Anderson years or walk-ons.
Without Mark Smith and Tilmon, the lowest scoring team in the SEC was missing 23.3 points per game, nearly 35 percent of its scoring. Smith and Tilmon are also Mizzou’s top two rebounders, averaging 11.4 of the team’s 34.7 per game, about 33 percent. The Aggies had nine more rebounds than Missouri, tied for the worst margin in Martin's two years at MU.
If Martin’s having to give more than 50 percent of his minutes to players brought to campus during what we can agree was the program’s worst three-year stretch in modern history, than we can probably agree that games like Saturday’s are forgivable — this season. Next year and beyond, not so much.
Gone from the rotation Saturday was a first-team All-SEC 6-11 forward and projected NBA first-round pick … the SEC’s most accurate 3-point shooter and one of the league’s best rebounding perimeter players … and one of the league’s five best post players. The 12-point lead notwithstanding, that’s a lot of firepower off the floor for a team that was only picked NINTH in the SEC before Porter's season-ending injury. Heading into Tuesday's game against Arkansas, the Tigers are tied for 11th, two games behind Florida and Mississippi State.
Perspective was in short supply on Twitter Saturday during the Tigers’ most recent meltdown, an understandably frustrating loss for the fans given Texas A&M was undermanned, too. But the Aggies weren’t missing their two best players, guards T.J. Starks and Wendell Mitchell. Martin, meanwhile, had to rely more on his spare parts. You could see the Tigers wear down in the second half. The passes weren’t as sharp. The ball-handling not as crisp. Martin had no trouble diagnosing Mizzou’s biggest problem on the offensive end — we’ll get to that soon enough — but there was an obvious disconnect between his observations and his players’ execution. That’s a problem for this team.
But if Martin were more like Crean — and he’s not, in many ways — he probably would have pointed out the following numbers: Here’s how many minutes Martin’s scholarship recruits played in MU’s previous nine SEC games (Tilmon, Smith, Pickett, Pinson, Watson, Santos):
Texas A&M: 108
South Carolina: 127
STATS THAT MATTERS
0, 0, 1. That’s how many field goals, free throws and rebounds power forwards Santos and Mitchell Smith gave the Tigers in 27 combined minutes. With Tilmon out, Mizzou started Reed Nikko at center, and while he matched his season high with eight points, the Tigers needed more production from the other forwards. Kevin Puryear was moderately productive with seven points and seven rebounds.
Smith and Santos were barely visible, which was especially frustrating for Martin considering A&M’s defensive strategy. The Aggies switched their ball screens in the second half, leading to multiple mismatches where a much smaller guard was singled against the 6-10 Smith and 6-9 Santos. A&M’s gamble paid off in the form of all those zeroes from the forwards. Smith and Santos only attempted one shot each — and Smith’s was from 3-point range.
“Any time you’re switching with guards on our bigs, on K.J., Mitch and Kevin, we feel like there has to be an advantage somewhere to make them double, put the ball on the rim or if anything get an offensive rebound,” Martin said. “That didn’t happen.”
“When they start switching four different ways, they didn’t double if our bigs got the ball in the post,” Martin added. “So, they’re switching, so lets get the ball into our bigs to make a play, meaning more Kevin, K.J. and Mitch. And it didn’t happen.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Mitchell played like an All-SEC guard on Saturday, scoring a game-high 20 points plus six rebounds. He attacked the basket off high ball screens and on missed baskets. Six of his eight field goals were at the rim. He only shot 1 of 4 from the foul line but that matched Mizzou’s entire free throw total. His out-of-nowhere follow dunk midway through the second half helped ignite the Aggies’ rally, giving the visitors energy and momentum.
“Mitchell is playing as well as any guard in the league sine we played them (last month),” Martin said. “We knew he’d be a threat.”
• Nikko gave the Tigers 19 minutes, made 4 of 7 shots and blocked a couple shots. He’s not an SEC starting center, but he was serviceable for what the Tigers needed before he fouled out.
“Not bad,” Martin said, “outside of a couple block-outs. He did a good job offensively, but we put him in some bad spots with passes. I always respect Reed’s work whether it’s five minutes, 10 minutes or 20 minutes. He’s going to give you everything he has.”
• Pickett continues to surpass the outside expectations for what he’d give this team as a freshman — or maybe at any point in his career. He can score from the 3, he can attack the rim and run the floor. He makes his share of mistakes handling the ball, but he’s far more polished and productive on the offensive end than most expected. He led the Tigers with 15 points Saturday, but also failed to get to the free throw line, as did all but two of his teammates.
At 8.6 points per game, Pickett is just 15th in scoring among SEC freshmen, but for such an offensively challenged team, his production has arguably been more valuable than some of the more prolific rookies around the conference.
• Pinson with six assists and just one turnover. In his last three games, the freshman has turned the ball over just two times in 77 minutes. He also had a career-high three steals, twice poking the ball loose on the wing to initiate a transition opportunity.
NEEDS SOME WORK
• We’re not faulting anyone here, but the Tilmon situation was a little unusual. First, we have to go back to Tuesday at Tennessee. Tilmon left the game in the final minutes after appearing to tweak his knee. The team trainer checked him out on the bench after he limped off the floor, and Tilmon later left the locker room with an ice pack strapped to his knee. No big red flags, but when he met with reporters on Friday, I asked Martin how Tilmon was doing, implying the knee injury. “He’s fine,” Martin said.
In hindsight, it’s unclear if Martin thought I was asking about Tilmon’s emergency dental surgery, but seeing that no one in the press corps seemed to know about said dental surgery until about an hour before tipoff Saturday, I was asking about Tilmon’s knee. Either way, Martin seemed to indicate Tilmon would be ready to play. If nothing else, we knew the sophomore center was “fine.”
It turns out he wasn’t. The Tigers got back from Knoxville early Wednesday morning and the team didn’t practice that day. That’s when Tilmon had emergency wisdom teeth extraction, Martin said. (Though he didn’t sound exactly certain which day but seemed sure it was Wednesday.)
Martin said Tilmon hadn’t practiced since playing at Tennessee. Asked if Tilmon couldn’t play because of pain tolerance, Martin sort of shrugged, “I’m assuming it’s pain.”
Martin has never elaborated much on injuries or player health situations and seems to play it vague by default, especially after games and most especially after a difficult loss. Pickett and Watson were the only players available for interviews after the game and both said they were unsure if Tilmon would play.
At least twice the last two seasons we’ve seen Tilmon play through illness: last season at LSU and this year’s Braggin’ Rights Game. Nobody’s ever questioned his toughness. Martin and the two players didn’t seem to be critical of Tilmon for not being able to play, but there was a strange layer of mystery surrounding the situation. At one point, Mizzou couldn’t fully confirm how many wisdom teeth Tilmon had pulled, though the initial answer was two.
Asked if he expected Tilmon back for Tuesday’s game against Arkansas, Martin didn’t seem sure. “I’ve had wisdoms,” he said, adding, “He was in pain, so that’s what it is.”
• We chronicled Missouri’s historic night at the foul line in today’s print story. Or should we say historic night away from the foul line? Geist and Pinson each shot a pair of free throws — and that was it. Texas A&M was called for just 11 fouls — and there weren't many moments, if any, where the Aggies got away with contact that should have been whistled a foul.
The Tigers just weren’t looking for contact. Mizzou might have been deliberately less aggressive because of its thin bench, but the Aggies had their own issues, going with just six scholarship players.
When is the last time Mizzou’s opponents were called for only 11 fouls? You have to go way back to ... Tuesday at Tennessee. Maybe this is a trend for the Tigers.