COLUMBIA, Mo. — Maybe it’s the pregame meal. Or the pregame shootaround. Whatever that’s tripped up the Missouri basketball team in the opening minutes of its three losses, Cuonzo Martin is running out of time to identify the problem and fix it.
After going 0 for 2 in Kansas City last week against Butler and Oklahoma at the Hall of Fame Classic, the Tigers (4-3) are back home Tuesday against Charleston Southern (2-5), one of just three remaining home games against a mid-major opponent until Southeastern Conference play begins in a month.
In their losses to Xavier, Butler and Oklahoma, the Tigers were soundly outplayed in the early stretches. Through the first eight minutes of all three games, those three opponents outscored Martin’s team 62-28.
What’s the problem?
“Just a little bit of everything,” Martin said after the 77-66 loss to Oklahoma. “Stagnant offense, getting Jeremiah (Tilmon) going in situations, defensive breakdowns. We don’t have a real physical presence defensively.”
Consider these dismal numbers from those three losses. In the first eight minutes …
• The Tigers shot 37 percent from the field (10 of 27), compared to 63.2 percent by their three opponents.
• Xavier, Butler and Oklahoma combined to make 11 of 19 3-pointers (57.9 percent)
• The Tigers shot a respectable 40 percent from behind the arc, but just 4 of 10 — fewer attempts from 3 than the opponents made from 3.
• Mizzou had 13 turnovers in those opening eight minutes, compared to five by the opponents.
• Mizzou had nine fouls, compared to three by the opponents.
As poorly as the Tigers played on the offensive end early in those games — like last year, the turnovers are troubling — Martin was especially frustrated with his team’s man-to-man defense, which is supposed to be the program’s strength under his watch.
“We really got to communicate better defensively,” guard Mark Smith said. “We can make some adjustments like we talked about in the locker room, but we’ve really got to find a way to come out the first seven minutes a lot better.”
The struggles were so bad in the early stretches last week that Martin left Kansas City considering playing zone defense, something his teams have rarely done.
After Tuesday’s game against Charleston Southern (rated No. 312 by KenPom.com), the Tigers are short on chances to gobble up wins against overmatched foes. Mizzou faces a road test Saturday at Temple (6-1), followed by home games against Southern Illinois Carbondale (3-5) and Chicago State (3-6) sandwiched around the Braggin’ Rights Game against Illinois (6-1) on Dec. 21.
On the offensive end, the Tigers have been among the worst 3-point shooting teams in Division I, shooting just 27.1 percent. That ranks No. 317 nationally as of Monday. Only Arkansas, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Texas A&M were shooting a worse percentage among high-major conference teams.
One issue Martin noted in Kansas City was shot selection — not so much the shots the Tigers attempted but who was taking them.
“You still have to be aggressive and confident on the floor, but the right guys have to be in position to make plays,” he said.
Then there’s the Tilmon factor. The junior center was invisible through the first three halves in Kansas City before scoring 11 points in the second half against Oklahoma, which coincided with MU’s brief comeback against the Sooners.
“He’s so physical, a talented player around the rim,” Martin said. “You take what they give you. Just make the 1-on-1 play. If not, hit the open guy. I think it’s really simple for him because he’s so physical, so strong. I think he was a little more demanding of the ball (against Oklahoma). It was probably the best I’ve seen him all season.”