A dream season for Missouri entered this week at its zenith. The Tigers beat then-No. 10 Alabama on Saturday for their third win over a top 10 team this season, then jumped into the top 10 of the rankings themselves. Some NCAA Tournament projections forecast Missouri as high as a two-seed.
It didn’t take long for the team to crash back to earth at Ole Miss. The Rebels embarked on a 17-2 run across the final three minutes of the first half and the first three minutes of the second, and the Tigers couldn’t muster an answer. Ole Miss cruised to an 80-59 win, marking Missouri’s worst defeat of the season. Head coach Cuonzo Martin came away from the loss questioning his team’s effort.
“Just didn’t have that edge, man,” Martin said. “Some guys gotta do a better job of setting a physical tone, and we didn’t do it tonight.”
Below is our recap of the loss, including what we learned.
* Martin can generally stomach a loss during which Missouri simply didn’t get its offense going. But Wednesday’s game, during which his team struggled mightily on the defensive end, got beat by 15 in the rebounding margin and looked lifeless for the final 23 or so minutes, clearly bothered him. Martin didn’t name any names, but he said some Tiger players “didn’t show up.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily attribute it too much to just guys’ shots aren’t falling,” he said. “Those same guys have to do a better job of setting the tone defensively, playing hard, those sorts of things. I mean, it’s what we do. You gotta defend, rebound and play hard. It’s not necessarily whether my shot will fall.
“Some guys just didn’t give it tonight. Some guys didn’t show up.”
Martin didn’t feel like Missouri entered the game flat. He said even though the Tigers didn’t play particularly well during the first half, especially on the defensive end, they fought, which allowed them to take a one-point lead with less than three minutes to play in the half. But Ole Miss would out-score Missouri 10-2 to finish the half, then score the first nine points of the second half, and the Tigers had no answer.
“I didn’t think we played a great first half,” Martin said. “But I thought we had energy. And I thought the energy dropped and the effort on defense dropped in the second half.”
No stat illustrated the lack of effort more than the rebounding disparity. Ole Miss dominated Missouri on the boards, 34-19. The Rebels had nine offensive rebounds to the Tigers’ five and scored 12 second-chance points. Both Martin and senior guard Dru Smith pointed out that the team looks at the rebounding totals as an indicator of overall energy.
“I don’t even know what the numbers were, but I know it couldn’t have been close, and that’s usually pretty telling, I think, for us on how we’re going to play is how the rebounds look,” Smith said. “So we just have to make sure that we’re playing as hard as we can every night.”
* Missouri won the Alabama game on Saturday thanks to its defense. Four days later, the Tigers couldn’t buy a stop. An Ole Miss team that entered the game ranked 13th in the SEC in scoring, 12th in field goal percentage and last in three-point percentage during conference play found scored just about any way it wanted against Missouri.
Ole Miss made eight of 21 three-pointers, quite a bit better than its season average of 27.9 percent. But the Rebels did even more damage inside the arc. They shot a scorching 21-30 from two-point range, scoring 28 points in the paint. They scored 1.31 points per possession. Twenty-one of their 29 made field goals resulted from an assist.
“I thought they had too much comfort and rhythm in their shooting more than anything,” Martin said. “I didn’t think they were under duress in a lot of cases.”
It wasn’t just senior guard Devontae Shuler, who had scored in double figures in each of his team’s last eight games entering Wednesday, who got hot. Shuler was one of three Ole Miss players to score at least 15 points, joining Luis Rodriguez, who also had 15, and Jarkell Joiner, who led all scorers with 21. All eight Rebels who played more than two minutes scored at least four points.
“We’re a team with a defensive mindset,” Martin said. “You have to have that, especially when you’re going on the road. You can get away with certain things at home, but you’ll pay for it on the road, and now we paid for it tonight.”
* Missouri got another solid game from Dru Smith, who split SEC player of the week honors last week with Shuler. Smith finished the game with 17 points and three assists. No other member of the Tiger starting five scored in double-figures. The other four starters — Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, Kobe Brown and Jeremiah Tilmon — combined to record 24 points on 10-23 shooting and eight total turnovers.
Pinson, in particular, struggled. Missouri’s leading scorer exploded for 48 total points across his two meetings with Ole Miss a year ago, but Wednesday he scored just six on 3-11 shooting. He had four turnovers compared to two assists. Martin said he thought Pinson settled for too many jump shots early — an issue for the entire team — and never got into a rhythm as a result.
“He’s got to be aggressive getting downhill,” Martin said of Pinson. “I thought he settled a lot on the perimeter, he didn’t attack the rim at all, he wasn’t aggressive at the rim, making plays. And in a lot of ways, when he’s not doing that, we become stagnant, because you count on that, especially in certain actions that we have. If he’s not around the rim and he’s taking tough twos or tough threes, then everybody kind of stands and kind of goes from there.”
Martin would have liked to have seen more aggression from Tilmon, as well. The senior center has been having an all-SEC caliber season, but Wednesday, he scored six points and attempted just four shots. Martin said he needed to demand the ball more, particularly with Ole Miss’ starting center, fellow senior Romello White, playing just 12 minutes due to foul trouble.
“I think him missing some free throws probably slowed him up as far as him being aggressive in posting,” Martin said. “You gotta still post aggressively. But I think also the double coming different ways — he knew it was coming, shooters gotta be ready. I think we had one or two turnovers when they did double him, and I think it was more so not necessarily the double, but guys diving late.”
* One other way Ole Miss kept Missouri from encroaching on its second-half lead was by making the Tigers play offense in the half-court. Missouri has been opportunistic in transition this season, as evidenced by its 20 fast-break points against Alabama on Saturday. But Wednesday, the Rebels held the Tigers without a single transition basket.
A few factors went into that. First of all, Ole Miss clearly emphasized getting back on defense. Martin also said Missouri could have looked to run more frequently. But perhaps the biggest issue was that, with the Rebels shooting the ball so well on offense and turning the ball over just 12 times, Missouri didn’t have many opportunities to beat them down the floor.
“I think they probably had their defense set, but again, often times, it’s hard to run the way you’d run when a team shoots 56 percent from the field,” Martin explained. “So we didn’t defend at the level we needed to defend at, and we paid for it.”
* It’s fair to start worrying about Missouri’s ability to get ready to play following a momentous victory.
As mentioned above, the Tigers have now beaten three top-10 teams this season. Following the first win, over Illinois on Dec. 12, Missouri played its worst statistical offensive game of the season and got lucky to survive Bradley on a last-second and-one by Tilmon. It then lost to Tennessee by 20 the following game. After avenging that loss to the Volunteers by winning in Knoxville on Jan. 23, Missouri dropped a game at Auburn. This, obviously, represented the most jarring letdown, with Missouri going from leading Alabama by as many as 22 in the second half to trailing by as many as 22 against Ole Miss.
Dru Smith didn’t explicitly say Missouri struggled to recreate its energy from the Alabama win, but he did say the team has to play hard “no matter what number is next to our name. Martin, meanwhile, didn’t view the loss as a result of his team coming in flat; rather, failing to find an answer for Ole Miss’ mid-game run. If his team was hungover from the Alabama win, he couldn’t understand why.
“We beat an Alabama team that, yeah, they hadn’t lost a game, but it was a conference opponent,” Martin said. “o it wasn’t as if we did something — respectfully to those guys — we did something special. We beat a conference opponent. You know, they just happened to be ranked 10, and that was great, but we didn’t play well down the stretch, we allowed a 22-point lead to get cut. So we just won the ball game, we didn’t play great.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: A lot went wrong for Missouri in that one. The Tigers came out on the worse end of nearly every single statistical category. But perhaps the most glaring line in the box score: free throws. Missouri, which entered Wednesday shooting 70.5 percent from the line, shot a dismal 5-15 from the charity stripe. Tilmon, Mark Smith and Kobe Brown all had multiple misses. For a team that relies quite a bit on free throws to score points, that cannot become a trend.
STAR OF THE GAME: The only reason Missouri hung in the game as long as it did was the play of Dru Smith. Smith hit four of his first six shots and scored 11 points in the game’s first 14 minutes. He finished with 17. He’s now scored at least 16 points in each of Missouri’s last three games and six of its last seven. Smith is averaging 17.4 points per game since Missouri came back from its COVID-19 induced pause on Jan. 16.
WHAT IT MEANS: A road loss to a hot Ole Miss team after a big win on Saturday doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, nor does it move Missouri below second place in the SEC standings. But the way it unfolded is certainly cause for some concern. Missouri showed during the first half against Alabama that it can overwhelm just about any team in the country. Four days later, the Tigers laid an egg that serves as a reminder that they can also lose to just about any team that’s going to make the NCAA Tournament field. How the group responds Saturday against Arkansas will be key. Pretty much every college basketball team has an uncharacteristically poor game or two during the course of a season, but if Missouri lets the defensive and effort issues linger, its postseason hopes would take a big hit.
QUOTABLE: “That’s not who we are as a team. We can’t come into games and let another team play harder than we did, and I feel like that’s what happened tonight. They played harder, they killed us on the glass.” — Dru Smith