Missouri has lost games this season, but nothing lately like what happened on Wednesday as Auburn rolled 91-73. At the media timeout with 7:45 remaining, the pep band broke into the “Missouri Waltz,” and that’s what several fans did, right out of Mizzou Arena.
With a loss by Florida earlier in the evening, No. 19 Auburn became the SEC bully, and Mizzou has the bruises to prove it. This was a beatdown, and following the uninspiring effort at Texas A&M last weekend, Missouri owns its first losing streak in this season of rejuvenation.
Cuonzo Martin and the Tigers now must work to make Wednesday’s outcome a gut punch and not a trend. Falling to a ranked team, even at home, won’t be considered an unpardonable sin when the NCAA Tournament selectors convene — and more on that in a moment.
In the present, greater attention to detail will serve Missouri well.
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Usually careful Mizzou, averaging 14 turnovers entering the game, committed an alarming 20. Everyone pitched in, but Auburn’s quicker players exposed Missouri’s backcourt.
The Tigers have to get it done with Jordan Geist and Terrence Phillips primarily at point guard and Kassius Robertson often handling the ball. Auburn simply never gave them space.
Robertson, the dead-eye who is carrying a touch of a shooting virus, buried what looked to be a huge triple with about 14 minutes remaining. Missouri had closed to 49-48 and the building was jumping.
But in fewer than 7 minutes — and it seemed quicker — Auburn had a 20-point lead.
When the Tigers defeated ranked Tennessee a week ago, Missouri turned the game into a slog. Without much offensive star power, grinding a game into street fight is Mizzou’s best path. There’s a valid reason for MU to hunker down, extend opponents, and stay out of shootouts.
“We’re not good enough offensively to win games there,” Geist said. “We know we have to bring it on defense. That’s our bread and butter.”
On the same topic, coach Cuonzo Martin said that’s been the message from the first day of practice, and that was before top recruit Michael Porter Jr. had back surgery shortly after the season started.
“We don’t have enough offense to take a day off on defense,” Martin said.
Then there is the confounding case of Jeremiah Tilmon, the big man who has shown great potential when he can play without thinking about fouls.
That’s not possible when, like Wednesday, he collects his first foul 17 seconds into the game and his second before 7 minutes had expired. The team can live with some mistakes, but early in the second half, when the 6-11 freshman came out to challenge a three-point attempt and caught enough of the shooter for another foul, Martin shook his head but left him in the game.
“Why not?” Martin said. “You know how it’s going to end. He has to learn to fight through it.”
The other message Martin has had for Tilmon: It’s your own fault.
“It’s not the officiating,” Martin said. “It’s you. You have to take ownership.”
Auburn presented unique challenges. The visiting Tigers start no player taller than 6-7, but they blocked nine shots, including six by 6-5 Anfernee McLemore. The team was picked to finish ninth in the SEC, but they’re playing the disrespect card as an undersized team that also happens to be playing under a cloud of FBI investigation all season.
Assistant coach Chuck Person was fired and faces six federal charges, including corruption. Two players who figured to be major contributors have been held out all season due to eligibility concerns stemming from those charges.
Still, Auburn is steaming toward its best season in nearly two decades, climbing the NCAA Tournament mock brackets.
Missouri also has NCAA credentials. The committee will now place greater emphasis on away and neutral-floor triumphs. The Tigers are getting more credit for outcomes like the victory at Central Florida than they would in other years. And winning at South Carolina, which beat the Gators on Wednesday, looks better now.
The next four games — trips to Mississippi State, Alabama and Mississippi along with a home game with Kentucky — might be Mizzou’s most critical stretch.
Nothing would have helped Missouri more than beating Auburn, though. That didn’t happen because the Tigers lost their defensive focus, and a successful season depends on how quickly it returns.