University of Missouri

In loss at No. 1 Tennessee, Missouri appears to have addressed its two biggest issues

Mizzou head coach Cuonzo Martin talks about his return to Tennessee

Missouri Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin talks about his return to Tennessee.
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Missouri Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin talks about his return to Tennessee.

Missouri failed to pull off the upset against No. 1 Tennessee on Tuesday in Cuonzo Martin’s return to Knoxville, but the Tigers’ didn’t go down in their usual fashion.

Jeremiah Tilmon was able to play 27 minutes and add eight points and MU took care of the ball, preventing death by turnovers.

While Missouri is just 2-7 to open Southeastern Conference play, the Tigers think they’re turning a corner when it comes to their woes.

“I like our chances against anybody if we take care of the basketball and Tilly is on the floor,” MU coach Cuonzo Martin said after his current team lost to his old one — No. 1-ranked Tennessee — Tuesday night.

Missouri has turned the ball over just nine times in each of its last two games, a dramatic improvement given the team’s horrendous 21.1 turnovers-per-game average, which ranks No. 301 nationally via KenPom.

One of the bigger revelations with Mizzou’s turnover issues has been freshman Xavier Pinson, who has just two in his last two games after a career-high six against Auburn on Jan. 30.

Pinson attributes the recent cutdown to getting more acclimated to the college game and starting MU’s last three games, which has given him more time to figure out his problems.

Senior Kevin Puryear, a Blue Springs South graduate, said Missouri has slowed down in the open court.

“A lot of our turnovers happen on the fast break when we try to force plays,” he said. “I thought Geist and (Pinson) did a good job of seeing the floor (against the Vols).”

Against Tennessee, Tilmon played his seventh consecutive game in which he scored at least eight points and logged 26-plus minutes. Martin called MU’s most recent seven games the best stretch of Tilmon’s young career. Missouri is 20-4 under Martin in games in which he scores in double-digits. Tilmon played just nine minutes in Missouri’s previous loss to Tennessee on Jan. 8.

While Missouri appears to have turned a corner with its two biggest liabilities, new issues have arisen in the absence of sophomore Mark Smith, who has missed the last four games with a sprained left ankle.

With Smith, the Tigers were the SEC’s top team in three-point shooting percentage. But they have recently fallen behind to Auburn, who is shooting at 37.4 percent. Missouri is shooting 37.1 percent. Smith leads the conference in three-point shooting percentage at 47.5 and ranks in the top 10 nationally. Since Smith got hurt at the end of Missouri’s loss at Alabama, the Tigers have shot just 28 percent from three-point range. The Tigers haven’t hit 10 threes in a game since the Arkansas game, when Smith hit six of MU’s 10.

Martin said he thought Missouri forced too many threes when the Tigers were struggling to score — a constant issue for MU this season. Without alpha dog Jontay Porter, who is out for the season with a torn MCL and ACL, the Tigers don’t have a player who can be relied on to get a basket.

“We don’t have any heroes on this team,” Puryear said.

Martin said that while the record doesn’t reflect it, Missouri has made strides as a team despite its lackluster start to conference play.

Puryear echoed Martin’s words and added that he thinks the team is close to turning things around given the way it has cleaned up its biggest issues as of late.

“This team has lost so many close games to us beating ourselves up,” he said. “With the turnovers, missing bunnies, we’ve still got some basketball to play.”

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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.