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Mizzou needs floor leader Dru Smith on the court, not the bench

Mizzou needs floor leader Dru Smith on the court, not the bench

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Dru Smith had an excellent view of Missouri’s meltdown in the final five minutes of its loss Tuesday to Tennessee.

On the bench, already whistled for five fouls.

“It (stinks),” he said Friday. “It (stinks) sitting there, knowing that it was no one else's fault. I did that to myself. It was hard knowing I could have maybe helped in different areas. It was tough.”

The Tigers hardly were in control of the game when Smith fouled out with 5:04 left — Tennessee led 56-53 at the time. But without Smith on the floor, Mizzou completely unraveled, especially on the offensive end.

In their final 12 possessions after Smith left the game, the Tigers scored just six points, turned the ball over twice and made just one of nine shots from the field. Backup point guard Xavier Pinson missed all four of his attempts, including two at the rim. MU wasn't much better on the defensive end as the Volunteers scored 13 points on their final 13 possessions with Smith on the bench.

In his first eligible season at Mizzou, Smith hasn’t always lived up to some of the hyperbolic praise that came from his coaches and teammates last season when he could only practice with the Tigers. But the transfer from Evansville gives coach Cuonzo Martin a reliable ball-handler and defender and at times a dynamic scorer inside and out.

Has he been a significant upgrade over last year’s primary ball-handler, former Tiger guard Jordan Geist? Not necessarily. But with a pivotal game on the line in the closing minutes Tuesday, Mizzou clearly missed its floor leader.

“He's a player that we want to have on the floor as much as possible,” senior center Reed Nikko said. “I'd say it's different for sure (without him in the game.) One of the biggest things Dru brings is a lot of experience. This is his third year playing college basketball. He has a lot of game experience. He knows how to handle those big moments.”

As Mizzou (8-6, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) resumes plays with Saturday’s visit from Florida (10-4, 2-0), a 7:30 p.m. tip-off on SEC Network, Smith’s presence on the floor becomes paramount for a team hungry for its first conference victory. Smith ranks third in the SEC in steals per game (2.1). But his defensive aggression works against him sometimes: The 6-foot-3 guard also ranks fourth in the SEC in fouls, with 44. The only players with more fouls are 6-feet-10 or taller.

“I just have to make sure that I'm staying away from guys, make sure I’m not keeping my hands out, especially when guys are driving,” he said. “It’s just making the smart play and just knowing that I don't have to steal it.”

Through MU’s first 14 games, Smith ranks as one of the SEC’s best defensive players at any position, according to Sports-Reference.com. He’s fourth in the league in defensive rating (83.9), fourth in defensive win shares (1.2) and sixth in defensive plus/minus (5.5).

On the offensive end, he’s scoring 11.3 points per game with 4.2 assists and 2.6 turnovers, compared to Geist’s 2018-19 averages of 14.8 points, three assists and 2.2 turnovers. Smith has been a more accurate shooter from all areas of the floor, but Martin would like to see Smith be more selfish with his shot, either from 3-point range or in the lane.

“I think he tries to make plays because I think he's always in attack mode,” Martin said. “He's aggressive. I just think he's a good basketball player and he knows to make the right decision, but we just need to him to get downhill more. Watching film we always talk about him having more opportunities for him to drive the ball.”

In Mizzou’s offense, Smith is usually handling the ball and rarely comes free off screens for open perimeter shots. He’s shooting 37 percent from 3-point range — down from 49.1 percent as a sophomore at Evansville — but most of his 3-point attempts are more challenging pull-up jumpers at the top of the key, hardly the most efficient shot in the game.

“It doesn't really come naturally to me,” Smith said. “But it's something that coach Martin definitely talks to me about it a lot, just trying to be more aggressive on the offensive end and looking to score and looking to make plays. So it’s definitely something I still have to work on.”

Smith's skills were especially on display in MU's best win of the season, the Dec. 21 Braggin' Rights victory over Illinois. He probed and prodded through the Illini for a game-high 19 points. He didn't attempt a single 3-pointer and made nine of 10 free throw attempts. For a team stuck on 59 points in each of its two SEC games, Mizzou could use more of that Saturday — and less of its most frequent fouler watching from the bench. 


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