Will Wade doesn’t pay his team enough to play stellar defense, but they’re pretty good on the offensive end.
It’s sort of fitting that the last regular season game of the 2020-2021 season is one that was postponed, looked to be totally cancelled and then was added again last minute after another cancellation.
Missouri ends its regular campaign on Saturday with a clash of Tigers, this time squaring off against cheatin’ ass Will Wades. It represents a natural inflection point as the season transitions next week.
For much of Missouri’s season, we asked ourselves collectively just how good the Tigers were. Cuonzo Martin’s team spent much of the year presenting as a top 15 team, one that had real Final Four aspirations. However, the metrics told us something different — that Missouri was more like a top 40 team — and they turned out to be correct. Missouri is still good, they’re just not quite as good as we thought a few weeks ago.
Still, there’s an opportunity to build momentum at the perfect time. There’s no doubt the last month of the season has seen Missouri fall from grace (and the Top 25), but the final week of the season presented a healthy challenge — two Quad 1 games against two NCAA Tournament teams who are ahead of the Tigers in the SEC standings. Missouri took care of business in the first, notching another quality road win over Florida.
LSU presents a challenge of a different sort. Unlike Florida, who gets by on their stellar balance, LSU brings one of the best offenses in the country to Columbia — they rank 6th in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric. Towing behind it, though, is the country’s 126th best defense. Combined, it’s still good enough for the Tigers to rank 29th in KenPom’s overall ratings, 14 spots ahead of Missouri.
So much like the season to date, Missouri is presented with the task of beating a team that is better on paper. It’s the sort of situation that has seen Missouri flourish this season — only two of the Tigers’ seven losses have come to likely tournament teams. It may be an indicator that Missouri plays to its competition, but is that really the worst thing headed into a tournament where you’re only playing good teams?
Note: These starting lineups are projected.
LSU has 11 players who have logged more than 20 percent of available minutes so far, but the Tigers mostly run with a group of five, four of whom are playing more than 60 percent of the time.
It starts with Javonte Smart, a name Missouri fans should be well aware of at this point. The junior is having arguably his best season in purple and gold, posting a 61.6 true shooting percentage while canning 44.6 percent of his threes. Smart isn’t the most volume-heavy shooter, but when he finds an open look, you can assume it’ll fall. He’s joined in the junior class by Darius Days, a jumbo wing who is also posting some career best numbers. He’s become a three-point threat in his own right at 39 percent and continues to be a force on the interior (72.7 two-point percentage) and the glass
Sophomore Trendon Watford may be the team’s most purely talented player, and he might be playing himself out of the NCAA in his second year. Watford gets to the free throw line at will and creates for his teammates well for a combo forward. He represents LSU’s best option for paint defense as the only regular contributor above 6’7”. He’s not particularly active on that end either, which could be an exploitable match up for Missouri.
Freshmen Mwani Wilkinson and Cameron Thomas round out the main five, each representing a unique threat. Thomas, like Watford, gets to the rim with ease and has a knack for picking up fouls. That’s good for LSU, considering he’s an 88 percent free throw shooter. He’s a volume scorer and a bit of a ball-stopper, but he doesn’t have any glaring flaws on the offensive end — he’s not turnover prone by any means. Wilkinson plays far fewer minutes, but is an efficiency god, boasting the nation’s top overall efficiency rating. He’s only taken 64 combined shots on the season (including 20 free throws), but has only missed 15 of them. His turnover rate is low, he’s good on the offensive glass as on oversized guard and he’s a ball-hawk on defense.
Once you get past the first five, things get a little dicier. Freshman Eric Gaines gets some run, but he’s a disaster on offense, posting low efficiency numbers to go along with lots of turnovers. He’s alright on defense, though. His fellow frosh Jalen Cook is not a disaster on offense, and offers LSU a jump shooting threat off the bench. He’s held back by foul trouble, but will be a danger when he has the ball.
Junior Josh LeBlanc, Sr. has seen his minutes increase over the course of the season as he gives the Tigers a dependable offensive option down low. Sophomore wing Aundre Hyatt has gotten some starting minutes as of late; he’s a good offensive rebounder and shoots well from close range. Senior guard Charles Manning is a pure minutes eater and doesn’t offer much on the stat sheet. Sophomore Shareef O’Neal (yes, that O’Neal!) is a terror on the defensive boards, but can’t be trusted much with the ball in his hands or on defense.
When Missouri has the ball…
What to Watch | Attacking the interior
Missouri’s offense, once a picture of three-point ineptitude and two-point efficiency, has evened out over the course of SEC play, especially in recent weeks. Still, the Tigers are more well-suited to attack the paint, which should be a positive against LSU
The Geaux Tigers are one of the country’s worst two-point defenses and don’t have anything approaching rim protection. This should play well into Mizzou’s preferred plan of driving to the hole and getting fouled or pick-and-rolling LSU to death. Look for another big performance from Tilmon, who should be able to exploit LSU’s smaller front-line and grab some offensive boards.
When LSU has the ball…
What to Watch | Defending the interior
Yes, we’re just going to take what I said above and apply it inversely. While LSU struggles to defend it’s own paint, it excels at attacking the same area on the other end. Missouri doesn’t struggle as much with their own two-point defense, but are prone to weakening if Jeremiah Tilmon, Kobe Brown or Mitchell Smith get in foul trouble.
And while it may seem like obvious advice, the key to defending LSU’s top 10 adjusted efficiency offense will simply be locking in mentally. LSU plays with good pace and is fairly balanced across the board in their offensive attack. They’re not elite at any one thing, but they’re pretty good at everything. Missouri has been prone to defensive lapses over the past month, and those won’t fly against Will Wade’s Tigers. If Missouri can avoid major letdowns on the defensive end, they’ll stand a good chance of walking away victorious.
Missouri 80, LSU 79 | Missouri is plenty capable of beating LSU, even if the two teams have been on opposite trajectories over the past few weeks. The match up favors Missouri in many ways, particularly in the paint. While a win can’t vault Missouri into the top four of the SEC’s final standings, it will give the Selection Committee reason for pause in the coming weeks. Two Quad 1 wins after a few weeks of struggle would be reason to think Missouri has figured things out and headed in the right direction. And while a loss wouldn’t be a killer, it would leave Missouri fans uneasy headed into the most meaningful postseason of the Cuonzo Martin era.