COLUMBIA, Mo. — The 114th season of Mizzou basketball didn’t exactly tip off with a highly anticipated showdown Wednesday on Norm Stewart Court. Incarnate Word, a Southland Conference team from San Antonio coming off a six-win season — no, not the St. Louis girls high school on Normandy Drive — should rival Chicago State as the most overmatched team on the Tigers’ schedule this year.
But for the 8,185 curious enough to find a seat at Mizzou Arena, they were treated to a promising debut for Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers, an 82-42 victory to open the season.
With the deepest bench and most versatile collection of athletes of his three Mizzou teams, Martin substituted at will before the first media timeout, throwing waves of fresh bodies at the Cardinals all night. Martin made 25 substitutions in the first half alone and put 11 different players on the floor before the game was nine minutes old.
The Tigers (1-0) didn’t burn up the nets from 3-point range — they shot just 7 of 31 from deep — but they played unselfishly (16 assists), dominated play in the paint and smothered the Cardinals on the defensive end. Incarnate Word (0-1) shot just 26.8%, missed 10 of 12 3-pointers and turned the ball over 21 times. Mizzou outscored the Cardinals in the paint 42-22.
The visitors from Texas had no answer for the biggest man on the floor, Tigers center Jeremiah Tilmon, who successfully avoided foul trouble until the game was out of hand and led Mizzou with 16 points and blocked a career-best five shots. In 64 career college games, the 6-10 junior had blocked three shots three times but never more.
Only four players in recorded team history have ever blocked more than five shots in a game — Laurence Bowers, Arthur Johnson, Ricardo Ratliffe and Travon Bryant — and none since Ratliffe had six against Iowa State on Feb. 23, 2011.
“That was as one of the things we really talked to him about, having a presence around the rim,” Martin said. “I thought he did, in my opinion, the best job since he’s been in a Mizzou uniform of having a presence around the rim.”
Martin hinted that Tilmon could have had a few more blocks that were instead whistled for fouls.
“I thought a couple of those … well, I’ll be quiet,” Martin said.
Point guard Xavier Pinson sparked the Tigers with 15 points off the bench and delivered five assists, all in the first half, one off his single-game high. Dru Smith, Martin’s starter at the point, rarely looked to score but chipped in eight points and five more assists. MU’s 16 assists were one away from last year’s season-high.
• BOX SCORE: Mizzou 82, Incarnate Word 42
“I feel like we’re both just selfless and we want to win so bad,” Pinson said. “We just give it all on the defensive end and let the offense come to us. It works out.”
It did Wednesday, but the road ahead won’t be this easy. Mizzou returns to its home floor Friday to host Northern Kentucky, a 26-win team last year that reached the NCAA Tournament, followed by Tuesday’s trip to No. 19 Xavier.
Martin’s main nitpick after Friday’s exhibition victory over Central Missouri was the Tigers’ reluctance to feed Tilmon in the post. Pinson was clearly listening. Midway through the half, Pinson fed Tilmon with back-to-back passes in the paint for baskets, followed by a no-look strike to Tray Jackson for an uncontested dunk, Pinson’s third assist in three trips down the floor. Pinson found Tilmon again late in the half with a lob for a dunk.
As a freshman last year, Pinson had a tendency to throw more passes to a cheerleader or the tuba player than to his teammates. On Wednesday, he played under control and directed traffic like a veteran.
“We know what he can do with the ball when he’s moving that fast,” Tilmon said. “You just have to be aware of the passes because he’s a crazy passer — in a good way. You just have to be eyes on the ball and run with him and let him do what he do.”
Tilmon finished the first half with 12 points in 13 minutes. Just as important, he committed just one foul, a bump from behind on the defensive end.
With the Tigers in control, Martin called a timeout with 14 seconds left to set up one last play before halftime. Pinson delivered again, blazing past his defender for a contested jumper in traffic that beat the buzzer for a 43-22 lead.
The Tigers scored the first nine points of the second half and added to their lead by pushing the pace off missed Cardinals baskets. Mizzou showed off its superior athleticism midway through the half when 6-2 freshman Mario McKinney Jr. soared through a crowd under the rim to tip a missed 3-pointer to fellow freshman Jackson for the lay-in. In the closing minutes, Parker Braun made a nifty spin move in the lane but missed his shot off the rim, only for McKinney to swoop in for the follow-dunk, part of a seven-point college debut for the rookie from Vashon High.