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Point guards twice as nice in depleted Mizzou backcourt

Point guards twice as nice in depleted Mizzou backcourt

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Georgia Missouri Basketball

Missouri's Xavier Pinson (1) heads to the basket as Georgia's Rayshaun Hammonds (20) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri won 72-69. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — As Missouri’s two best ball-handlers, Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson spent every day of preseason workouts matched against each other.

“Iron sharpens iron,” forward Mitchell Smith said after a summer practice. “They’re going at it every day.”

Lately, as the Tigers navigate around their latest bout with injuries, the two natural point guards are sharing space in the same backcourt. Coincidence or not, the Tigers have shown glimpses of their best basketball of the season.

With Mark Smith sidelined by a lower back injury since halftime of Mizzou’s Jan. 28 win over Georgia, Torrence Watson buried in a season-long shooting slump and freshman Mario McKinney off to a junior college, Cuonzo Martin isn’t left with many options on the perimeter. Perhaps by default, he’s finding some success with Pinson and Dru Smith playing together, with Pinson at the point and Smith on the wing.

The Tigers (11-13, 3-8 Southeastern Conference) relied heavily on the combo in last Saturday’s overtime win over Arkansas, with Pinson and Smith playing 41 and 39 minutes, respectively. Pinson never shifted out of attack mode and finished with 24 points and seven rebounds. They rarely came off the floor Tuesday at No. 25 Louisiana State, a game Mizzou lost by four but led for 33 minutes.

“It speeds the game up a little bit for us because either one can get the ball and go,” teammate Javon Pickett said. “They’re getting up the floor, being able to get to the basket, facilitate, find people for open shots. They’re really good finishers around the basket. They can knock down those shots and they can make the perimeter shot, so it’s been good so far. I like it.”

Get used to it, Javon.

Mark Smith has missed the last four games with a lower back injury and isn’t expected back for Saturday’s 5 p.m. game against No. 11 Auburn (22-2, 9-2) at Mizzou Arena. Martin doesn’t think center Jeremiah Tilmon will play either. He’s missed 10 of the last 11 games with a stress fracture in his left foot.

“I’m not 100 percent, but I don’t think they’ll play tomorrow,” Martin said Friday.

Tilmon’s situation remains a bit of a mystery. He played 12 minutes off the bench at Texas A&M on Feb. 4 and a few days later said his foot felt about 80 percent recovered. Since making those comments on Feb. 6, he’s yet to play a minute in a game.

Asked Friday if Tilmon suffered a setback after the Texas A&M game, Martin said, “I assume so, because he felt good in the game. That’s more his call. He felt good about it (at Texas A&M). After that he said he was a little sore and we went from there.”

Dru Smith has joined them in the training room while recovering from a sprained ankle but hasn’t missed any time on the floor in games. Martin decided to hold Smith out of Thursday’s practice but expects the team’s leading scorer to play Saturday.

During the SEC Network broadcast of Tuesday’s game, analyst Andy Kennedy said Martin told him Smith’s ankle injury was as bad as the injuries that have sidelined his teammates. Asked about that comment Friday, Martin pushed back some.

“I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the case,” he said. “Dru’s battling. You can see that out on the floor. That’s understood. Mark obviously has a serious injury. Jermiah has a serious injury. … We kept (Dru Smith) out of practice yesterday. We don’t do a lot this time of year anyway, but he practiced today and he’ll be ready to go tomorrow. All guys’ (injuries), they’re all serious.”

Despite the ankle injury, Smith was a major reason the Tigers nearly toppled LSU. He finished with 20 points, four assists and three steals. At times wincing in pain, he came out for a breather in the first half for 2 minutes and 6 seconds and sat for all of 30 seconds in the second half.

“I think I’m fine,” he said Friday. “I think yesterday was just to give me a little extra day of rest. … Honestly, (I) just try to play normal and just try not to worry about it. If it’s going to hurt, it’s going to hurt at the end of the day.”

“Dru’s one of the tougher players that I’ve ever played with,” center Reed Nikko said. “Dru goes through a lot every day. You can see it just in his style of play. He wants to be in the paint. He wants to be at the basket. We have a lot of respect for what he’s playing through right now.”

“He’s one of those guys,” Martin said, “(who asks), ‘Can it get any worse? No? OK, let’s go.’”

As long as his foot stays attached to his lower leg, it appears Smith will stay in Martin’s suddenly potent backcourt. For now, the ball’s in good hands, times two.

“Two experienced ball-handlers, two guys that are good drivers, good decision-makers also guys that can make shots,” Martin said.

“They move your offense because they can make plays. … We need them to be aggressive. We need them to look for offense more. And that opens up other parts for the other guys.”

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