Missouri upperclassmen Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett carried the load offensively in the Tigers’ 70-64 loss to Illinois in the annual Braggin’ Rights game but were quick to move on from it on Saturday night.
Robertson led the team with 22 points while Barnett followed with 19, but the pair after the game kept the focus on the errors Missouri has to fix with Southeastern Conference play now upon them.
Missouri finished the non-conference slate 10-3, which already surpasses the win total for all of last season. The team had nice wins against St. John’s, Central Florida and Stephen F. Austin but lost tough ones to West Virginia and the Fightin’ Illini despite late rallies.
Barnett said the team lost a game it shouldn’t have with West Virginia and that the team’s biggest issue going into conference play is pretty obvious.
“I’m always going to think it could’ve been better,” he said. “Turnovers have been our biggest issue all year. We have to find some way to cut down on those. That will make us a much better team.”
Missouri has 21 turnovers against Illinois on Saturday. That tied a season-high Missouri had against Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday. Illinois coach Brad Underwood previously coached the Lumberjacks and runs a similar defensive scheme to his old squad..
Part of Missouri’s turnover troubles have come from the point guard position, where the Tigers have had a three-man rotation of Jordan Geist, Blake Harris and Terrence Phillips because no player has established himself as the team’s outright floor general.
That might have changed after Saturday.
After a sluggish first half, Harris gave Missouri energy in the second half as he attacked the basket, forced turnovers and got the crowd involved while Missouri was chipping away at a double-digit deficit.
“I thought he played with extreme intensity in the second half,” Barnett said of Harris. “Nobody played really with intensity in the first half. Blake definitely brought it in the second half. We need to see that from him every game.”
Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said Harris’ improvement from the start of the season is apparent as Harris has been more aggressive offensively than he had in previous games. In the first half on Saturday agasint the Illlini, Missouri forced a lot of shots, some of which were on bad looks.
In the second half, Harris’ aggression and smart play helped open up the offense on a night where the Tigers got zero points from the bench.
“He finished at the rim.,” Martin said of Harris. “Often times he has the ball out, but he finished at the rim. He has the speed at that point guard position to turn the corner. Once you turn the corner, the defense breaks. I thought he had a lot to do with generating those good looks in the second half.”
As for the rest of the team, Martin said he likes where they’re at offensively. In the absence of Michael Porter Jr., who is out with a back injury and whom the offense was built around, both Robertson and Barnett have stepped up as the team’s primary weapons on offense.
Kevin Puryear has been a nice complement to the duo but has struggled at times and wasn’t really a factor against Illinois.
Freshmen big men Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter have also shown enough potential to one day shake NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand but also have struggled to consistently be a factor on offense.
“We needed more production tonight from Jontay and Kevin Puryear,” Martin said. “Those for us are X-factors. They can do a lot of different things, and that position we didn’t get it tonight.”
Martin knows conference play will ultimately define Missouri’s season, since it determines whether or not the team will play in the NCAA Tournament.
He’s happy with the team’s play on defense and echos Barnett’s thought: For the offense to play to its potential, ball security has to be the priority.
“Taking care of the basketball is the most important thing offensively,” Martin said.