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Mizzou can't afford another slow start against resurgent Tide

Mizzou can't afford another slow start against resurgent Tide

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Auburn Alabama Basketball

Alabama guard Kira Lewis Jr. (2) flexes after a score against Auburn during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri learned its lesson last year when it comes to winter weather.

Last January, a snowstorm blitzed Columbia just as the Tigers tried to leave town the day before a Saturday game at South Carolina. But their flight out of Columbia was grounded for a day, forcing the Southeastern Conference to push tip-off to Sunday, a game the Tigers lost by 10.

This time, with ice and snow in the Friday forecast, Cuonzo Martin’s team took an early flight Thursday for Alabama, landing safely away from the wintry weather with an extra day to prepare in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the resurgent Crimson Tide. Fresh off handing rival Auburn its first loss of the season, Alabama (9-7, 2-2 SEC) hosts Martin’s Tigers (9-7, 1-3) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on SEC Network.

Now if only Mizzou can learn its lesson from Tuesday’s brutal loss at Mississippi State. Riding high into Starkville, Miss., after scoring a season-high 91 points in a comfortable win over Florida, MU barely resembled the same team 72 hours later against the Bulldogs in a 72-45 loss. The Tigers lost the game in the opening minutes when they couldn’t overcome a flood of turnovers or match MSU’s physical play.

“I just felt like we didn’t have an edge the first half defensively,” Martin said Friday from Alabama. “We didn’t have a true edge, a true grit like we normally play. That allowed them to get their heads up, allowed them to play with confidence. You saw the results.”

Saturday’s matchup in Tuscaloosa could become another mismatch if the Tigers come out flat. Under first-year coach Nate Oats, the Tide lead the SEC in scoring with 83.2 points per game — only Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and Central Michigan averaged more heading into the weekend — and play faster than any team the Tigers have faced. Alabama ranks No. 3 nationally in adjusted tempo and No. 12 in average possession length (just 15.1 seconds). Before replacing Avery Johnson at Alabama, Oats favored the same electric pace at Buffalo and coached the Bulls to 59 wins the last two seasons, including a victory in the NCAA Tournament both years. Oats’ best win at Alabama might have been convincing point guard Kira Lewis Jr. (16.8 points per game, 4.5 assists) and 3-point specialist John Petty (16.1 points, 48.2 3-point percentage) to exit the transfer portal and rejoin the team last spring. Now they’re part of the SEC’s most potent lineup. Alabama scored 90 points for a team-record five straight games earlier this season.

The SEC’s highest scoring team meets the league’s stingiest defense on Saturday. MU allows an SEC-low 59.7 points per game, though through four conference games the Tigers are last in SEC play when it comes to defending the 3-point arc, allowing opponents to shoot 39.5 percent from deep.

That’s a big red flag heading into a showdown with Petty, who made an SEC-high 10 3-pointers in a 39-point outburst against Samford last month.

“The biggest key in what they do is Petty has improved as a player,” Martin said. “He’s always been known as a guy who could shoot at a high level and always been a good athlete, but he’s doing a good job putting the ball on the floor. When they need a basket most times they go to him. The biggest difference is they’re playing faster and Kira is the biggest key to that because he’s so fast. They’ll spread you out and he’ll make plays.”

The Tide can play some defense, too. In Wednesday’s 83-64 win over No. 4 Auburn, Alabama became the first team to hold Auburn to less than 65 points since Virginia in last year’s Final Four semifinal.

With center Jeremiah Tilmon nursing a foot stress fracture, the Tigers broke out of an offensive slump against Florida with an unlikely shooting display and only 11 turnovers. Mizzou was far more careless with the ball in Starkville with 13 giveaways in the first half alone.

With Lewis leading the break, Alabama will feast on those kind of mistakes on Saturday.

“You want to make those guys score baskets in the halfcourt,” Martin said. “If you allow them to play confident in transition, where they’re catching and shooting open 3s, it’ll be a long night for you, especially when the shots are falling.”

Matter's Mizzou Quick Hits

er's Mizzou Quick Hits

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