COLUMBIA, Mo. — Cuonzo Martin has never tempered his belief that Missouri could challenge for the Southeastern Conference in this, his third season as head coach. In October, he responded to MU’s place in the media’s preseason SEC poll — 13th out of 14 teams — with even more confidence.
“If we finish 13th in this league,” he said, “then this would be one of the best leagues ever to lace them up in all of college basketball.”
Five games into Mizzou’s 18-game conference schedule, the poll looks more prescient than Martin’s expectations, though he always couched his comment with one caveat: “If we’re healthy,” he said many times leading into the season.
Similar to the last two years, the stress fracture in center Jeremiah Tilmon’s left foot has sidelined Martin’s most important player — two years ago it was Michael Porter Jr.’s troublesome back and Jontay Porter’s severed ACL last year — but the Tigers’ 16-point win over Florida proved they can beat a quality team without the veteran big man. Whether or not Tilmon would have helped, Mizzou looked far more vulnerable the last two games, losses at Mississippi State and Alabama by a combined 41 points.
Where does that leave the 9-8 Tigers? Mizzou’s grueling five-game stretch to open SEC play was never going to be easy with three road games and four opponents who made last year’s NCAA Tournament field. The load lightens from here, starting with Tuesday’s visit from Texas A&M. If the Tigers (1-4 SEC) have any illusion of making a push in the conference to avoid a bottom-four finish for the fifth time in six years, it has to start with Tuesday’s 8 p.m. tip-off against the Aggies (8-8, 2-3).
After Saturday’s test at No. 14 West Virginia in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Mizzou resumes SEC play with a potential path up the conference standings staring the Tigers right in the whiskers: home against Georgia, at South Carolina, at Texas A&M.
Other than West Virginia, the Tigers have only one more regular-season game against a team currently ranked in the AP Top 25, a Feb. 15 visit from No. 16 Auburn. Future foes Arkansas and Louisiana State are receiving votes in the latest poll.
For the Tigers, the turnaround starts now or never.
Mizzou’s recent struggles are easy to identify: a little bit of everything.
“You have to play the game on both ends of the floor,” Martin said Monday. “It’s a combination of getting to the free throw line, getting fouled, making your free throws, attacking the rim, making open 3-point shots, defending at a high level. It’s just everything. It’s not just one little thing. But they add up.”
In Saturday’s loss at Alabama, the Tigers finally followed Martin’s plan and attacked the lane early and often. Their reward was 31 trips to the foul line, where they broke a team record and SEC record with 31 successful free throws. The downside to all that action inside? Martin’s staff counted 15 to 18 missed baskets at the rim.
For all the complaints about Mizzou’s stagnant offense, the defense has been on the decline since the start of conference play. MU gets more steals than any SEC team, but its last four opponents have shot 39 of 99 from 3-point range (39.4%).
“It’s really just contesting, being aggressive, one-on-one defense,” he said. “We said before as a staff everything heightens when you get into conference play. Your margin for error is gone. That no longer exists. So the one-on-one defense is very important, contesting and, like anything else, taking the scouting report to the floor.”
The Tigers are fortunate to catch a Texas A&M team afflicted with growing pains under first-year coach Buzz Williams, a celebrated hire who doesn’t have the talent or depth to recreate his prior success at Virginia Tech and Marquette. After some ugly nonconference losses to Harvard and Fairfield, the Aggies won two of three to open SEC play and took LSU to overtime.
“I'm a big believer in not judging the product in totality by the team's record,” South Carolina’s Frank Martin said after beating Texas A&M on Saturday. “I'm a big believer in the difference between who (the Aggies) were in November and who they are now. … The difference is day and night in how they're playing. The good news for Texas A&M folks is that this development is not changing. It's only going to keep getting better."
If so again Tuesday, Mizzou’s season could get lost beyond recognition.