University of Missouri

Does Mizzou’s lack of scoring concern Cuonzo Martin heading into SEC play?

Missouri’s Javon Pickett (left) and Kevin Puryear (24) celebrated during the second half of the team’s win over Illinois on Saturday in St. Louis.
Missouri’s Javon Pickett (left) and Kevin Puryear (24) celebrated during the second half of the team’s win over Illinois on Saturday in St. Louis. AP

On Thursday’s teleconference for Southeastern Conference basketball coaches, Mizzou’s Cuonzo Martin said he was struggling to find flaws in Tennessee.

Then he watched the No. 3 Volunteers dismantle Georgia by 46 points on Saturday in a 96-50 victory.

When he spoke again Monday, Martin struggled to say if he had any more success scouting Tennessee.

“I thought they played well,” Martin said, smiling.

Missouri opens SEC play on Tuesday at home against the league’s toughest team and the Tigers will need all hands on deck if they want to upset Tennessee. MU is riding a six-game winning streak, but has some glaring issues going up against the Vols, who have a lot more scoring and experience than Mizzou.

The Tigers are currently last in the SEC in scoring, averaging 69.1 points per game despite leading the conference in three-point shooting. Tennessee is ranked first, with 86.3 points per game. Martin’s team has been able to go 9-3 without star player Jontay Porter, largely because of Missouri’s scoring defense, which is No. 33 nationally at 63.2 points per game and second in the SEC. Porter tore his right ACL and MCL before the season.

Martin doesn’t think the Tigers’ low scoring will be an issue in conference play, because he thinks most teams’ scoring numbers will drop by five to 10 points in the SEC. He added that Missouri’s scoring will likely go up as his freshmen continue to develop and MU can gain more possessions by cutting down on turnovers. He’d like to see Mizzou take more shots inside the three-point arc.

Missouri beat Tennessee 59-55 in Columbia last season, which Martin attributed to good defense, but will be hard-pressed to win with a repeat performance. Sharpshooters Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett both graduated and the Vols held Georgia to just one three-pointer on Saturday.

“Both teams did a good job defensively,” Martin said of last year’s game. “First half, we were 0-for-7 from three. There has to be more than just threes. You have to be able to make plays around the rim.”

Defensively, Martin said Tuesday will be a strong indicator for where MU is given the Vols’ leading scorers in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.

Williams is an All-American candidate and averages 19.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Martin called Williams “one of the five best players in college basketball right now.”

Missouri will likely use senior Kevin Puryear, a Blue Springs South graduate, on Williams and he is up for the challenge. The 6-foot-7 forward had 12 points and 10 rebounds in last year’s game and wants to see where he stands against one of the the conference’s best players.

“We’re playing a pretty complete team,” Puryear said.

Tennessee will be just the fourth top-three team to visit Mizzou Arena since 2009 and the first since No. 1 Kentucky in 2015.

Missouri’s nonconference schedule has put the Tigers in good shape to flirt with a postseason tournament appearance but a win on Tuesday would really put MU in discussion for the NCAA Tournament.

Martin isn’t worried about all that.

“I’m not consumed with their ranking,” he said. “What’s most important is protecting your home court.”

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.