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Gordo: SLU, Mizzou feeling the wait of their untimely COVID-19 shutdown

Gordo: SLU, Mizzou feeling the wait of their untimely COVID-19 shutdown

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

When last we saw the St. Louis University Billikens, they were overcoming a sluggish start to dispatch Kansas City 62-46 back on Dec. 23 at Chaifetz Arena.

When last we saw the Missouri Tigers, they were crumbling in the second half of their 78-63 loss last Tuesday at Mississippi State.

Both teams have been on pause due to COVID-19 issues, joining a slew of Division I schools on hiatus.

How rusty will the Billikens (7-1 this season) and Tigers (7-2) look when they come back? How many games will it take them to regain peak form?

Will they ever regain the swagger they demonstrated before the holidays?

Fans can’t help but wonder about that. Stakes are high for both programs as the COVID cloud hangs ominously over their promising seasons.

The Billikens, ranked No. 24 in the latest Associated Press poll despite their inactivity, have a clear shot at making the NCAA Tournament bracket.

So do the 17th-ranked Tigers — although their path through the Southeastern Conference is fraught with peril, as their rocky 1-2 start in league play underscored.

When fully operational, SLU is better positioned to make a deep run. The Billikens have a confident squad featuring excellent offensive chemistry along with their usual commitment to tight defense and relentless rebounding.

Nonconference victories over LSU and North Carolina State solidified their postseason credentials. Their Atlantic 10 schedule could become burdensome if they make up games, but they should have enough depth to handle that load.

There is much to like about the Billikens. Javonte Perkins is the fearless go-to scorer any team would covet. Do-it-all guard Jordan Goodwin fills up the stat sheet with points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Hasahn French remains a load in the paint. Gibson Jimerson stretches defenses with his long-range shooting. Point guard Yuri Collins is pushing the pace this season and boldly attacking the basket.

The SLU supporting cast — guard Demarius Jacobs, power forward Marten Linssen, wing players Terrence Hargrove Jr. and Fred Thatch Jr. and center Jimmy Bell — is the best coach Travis Ford has enjoyed since taking over this program.

And there is still room to improve. During the first 35 minutes of games, the Billikens should run more offense through French, as they did early on at Minnesota. Few post defenders can handle him without double-team help.

(French will never improve his free-throw shooting, so that’s why having Linssen for late-game possessions is so important.)

After scoring 15 points in the season-opening blowout of poor Arkansas-Pine Bluff, French has averaged just 7.6 points per game since. When the Billikens finally get back to work, boosting that total should be high on the to-do list.

Like SLU under Ford, Mizzou under Cuonzo Martin has remained committed to playing dogged defense. But the Tigers haven’t been consistently strong on the backboards despite getting more minutes out of Jeremiah Tilmon.

And their offense? It comes and goes. Missouri’s half court execution broke down during the 54-53 victory over Bradley and it remained in shambles during the ugly 73-53 loss to Tennessee.

Then Arkansas welcomed the Tigers into a fast-paced game at Fayetteville. That invitation (plus the Razorbacks’ inability to defend Tilmon or make shots of their own) allowed Missouri to score a big 81-68 road victory.

The Tigers carried that success through an excellent first half at Mississippi State. They moved the ball more quickly and got everybody into the flow while taking a 39-27 lead.

Kobe Brown got to the rim early. So did Tilmon, for a thunderous slam dunk. Dru Smith hit a 3-point jumper, which is a big deal for this team. Javon Pickett came off the bench for a seven-point burst, punctuated by a rare basket from beyond the arc.

Mitchell Smith threw down a dunk. Mark Smith buried a deep 3-pointer, another welcome sight for this team’s scattershot perimeter game. Xavier Pinson drove the lane again and again to earn free throws.

For 20 minutes the Tigers looked like a solid mid-bracket team for the NCAA Tournament. Their offensive glitches seemed to be repaired.

And then the second half started. Once Mississippi State guard D.J. Stewart started knocking down his mid-range jumpers, there was no stopping him or his teammates.

The Tigers lost big leads earlier this season, but each time they regrouped to regain momentum.

This time they buckled.

So Martin must prevent a lingering impact from the Mississippi State loss, especially since this shutdown gives frustrated players ample down time to dwell on it. It’s easier for a team to move past a bad half when they get to play a few days later.

The Tigers won’t play until Saturday, at the earliest, with a game scheduled at Texas A&M. The Billikens aren’t set to play again until next Wednesday at UMass.

Both teams will have much to play for when they finally return to action, but will they play well?

Can the Tigers finally get their various Smiths on track? Can the Billikens settle back in and win some games on the road?

Their fans can only wait and wonder.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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