Cuonzo Martin admitted after Missouri’s blowout win over Texas-Arlington that he wasn’t sure what his team’s identity would be this season.
Who could blame him? After losing Jontay Porter to an ACL tear shortly before the start of the season and not knowing whether Mark Smith or Dru Smith would be ruled immediately eligible, Martin went into the season with a lot in the air.
Through nine games, however, Missouri has appeared to find an identity. The Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in three-point shooting percentage at 39 percent. Mark Smith leads the team in three-point shooting at 47 percent, which ranks second in the conference behind Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon.
In the absence of Michael Porter Jr., Missouri lived on three-point shooting the previous season to get into its first NCAA Tournament in five years. Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett led a Missouri offense that shot 38 percent from beyond the arc. The seniors shot 43 and 41 percent from deep, respectively.
During last season, Missouri lost just four games in which it made over 10 three-pointers. Missouri’s loss to Auburn was the only one of those losses that wasn’t within a single-possession.
Senior Kevin Puryear said Missouri’s recipe for winning games this year appears to be pretty simple: hit 10 threes and try to keep Jeremiah Tilmon out of foul trouble.
Puryear said the team’s three-point shooting has clearly been a strength again, but he added that Missouri has the personnel to score inside more than it has been, too.
“I think sometimes we get a little bit too complacent with shooting the three ball,” Puryear said. “We also have drivers, too. I think we need to play more of an inside-outside game, but the way our guys have been shooting the ball, we have the ultimate green light. It’s up to us to continue to shoot the ball.”
Aside from Smith, Missouri’s best three-point shooters have been freshmen Xavier Pinson and Torrence Watson. Pinson is shooting 42 percent from three while Watson is closely behind at 41 percent. Sophomore Mitchell Smith is shooting 44 percent but only has nine shot attempts from deep.
Senior Jordan Geist credits Missouri’s three-point shooting to the work ethic of the newcomers, who are in the gym every morning at 5 a.m.
“When you got guys that come in here and make 500 threes a day, you’re kind of setting yourself up to be a three-point shooting team,” Geist said.
During Missouri’s three-game winning streak, the Tigers are shooting 41 percent from three. MU hosts Xavier next Tuesday after a 11-day break.
The Musketeers have beaten MU three times in the past five seasons, and a win could put MU in the mix for a National Invitation Tournament bid at the end of the season — especially if Missouri beats Illinois a few days later. It’s too early to consider the Tigers as an NCAA Tournament team.
Xavier is led by first-year head coach Travis Steele after longtime coach and alum Chris Mack left for Louisville.
While Xavier has had MU’s number as of late, the Musketeers are last in the Big East in three-point defense, allowing teams to shoot 38 percent from deep.
Missouri’s green light from deep won’t be changing, at least not for another week.