By one metric, this Missouri men’s basketball squad is the worst team Cuonzo Martin has coached during his 10-year career as a head coach.
The Tigers are turning the ball over on 22 percent of their possessions, which puts them last among every team Martin has coached and ranks them 290th in the country in that category. Turnovers did in Mizzou against West Virginia, a team the Tigers blew a 16-point lead against in fewer than 8 minutes.
On Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena, before Missouri won 70-51, early turnovers allowed Miami, Ohio, to stay close for the first 15 minutes against a Missouri team that — when it holds onto the ball — has a strong, balanced offense. In total, MU gave the ball away 17 times.
The Tigers are also shooting 41.5 percent on three-pointers, by far the best rate of any team Martin has coached. So they can either bury a team quickly or, because of their turnover struggles, keep their opponent in the game.
“We know we’re a much different team when we take care of the ball,” MU guard Kassius Robertson said. “ … We’ve got to clean that up if we want to be a successful team.”
What’s causing the turnovers, other than the opponent’s defense?
“I think just carelessness,” Martin said. “They’re (Miami) not a team that pressures. Just making decisions, being able to handle the ball.”
Martin claimed that Missouri’s offense has caused some of the turnovers. The first-year MU coach asks for all of his players to touch the ball, for post players to be strong passers and playmakers — and some players aren’t used to that responsibility yet.
“That’s a product of our offense, because we play in space with five guys; everybody touches the ball,” Martin said. “It’s not as if we have one or two guys do all the dribbling and passing. You’ve got the big guys handling the ball.”
Turnovers against the Redhawks on Tuesday helped show why Martin hasn’t found the point guard he can consistently rely on.
Blake Harris starts but rarely finishes games because Martin doesn’t trust the true freshman yet, and Harris turned the ball over four times Tuesday, including back-to-back possessions midway through the second half.
After Terrence Phillips played well in the closing moments of MU’s win over Central Florida last week in Orlando, Martin made Phillips his first guard off the bench. But the junior turned the ball over twice in his first 4 minutes on the floor, and Martin pulled him soon after. Phillips ended up playing just 7 minutes.
Jordan Geist had 4 assists and no turnovers, but Martin — a coach who rarely praises his players — said the junior didn’t defend well enough.
This game began a four-game home stand for Mizzou and a chance for Harris to play consistently well against lesser competition. That could help him earn Martin’s trust — although Martin won’t commit to any point guard.
“Blake’s just like anybody else,” Martin said when asked what Harris had to do to seize control of the position. “Terrence has a right. The same question you (could) ask for Terrence Phillips, Jordan Geist. They want it just like Blake. Whoever earns it, they get it. It’s all the same for me. You have to work extremely hard. It takes time. Wisdom comes with time.”
Harris showed flashes of wisdom on Tuesday.
On consecutive possessions, he created shots for himself. On the first basket, he drove hard toward the hoop, then stopped suddenly and crossed over with the ball behind his back. That created distance from his defender, whose momentum drove him away from Harris. The freshman scored on a short jumper. Harris used a pick to free himself for a long two-pointer after that.
But then Harris threw the ball away on one possession, and he traveled on the one that followed.
Out of foul trouble, but …
This was the third straight game that 6-10 freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon played more than 20 minutes. That’s huge for the Tigers, who have said the foul-prone Tilmon is the foundation of their defense.
Tilmon, who is often the most agile big man on the floor during Missouri’s games, outran his defender a few times for easy baskets that he essentially turned into fast breaks. He finished with 12 points on 6-of-11 shooting.
Part of the reason he’s gotten better about staying in games after fouling out of Mizzou’s first two contests and drawing seven fouls in an exhibition against Kansas: When the Tigers conduct half-court scrimmages, Tilmon begins with three fouls.
But the increased awareness from the freshman has had a side effect Martin doesn’t like. He thinks Tilmon isn’t aggressive enough as a rebounder.
Tilmon had six rebounds against the Redhawks on Tuesday and seven in Mizzou’s win at Central Florida last week, but he has also recorded 3 or fewer or less in four games, including two in which he didn’t foul out.
“He still needs to be aggressive,” Martin said. “He still needs to post up. Though he’s not fouling, he’s not as aggressive. I still want him to be aggressive. It’s a very fine line for him to play at that level without fouling.”