Mizzou heads to Jacksonville with a chance to prove its better than its early season struggles.
The term, “measuring stick game,” feels like it shouldn’t apply to match ups like the one we’re about to witness on Sunday. After all, who wants to measure up to anything but the highest standard.
And yet… here we are. After three games, Missouri has seen a precipitous drop in public perception and predictive metrics. It would be one thing if the Tigers had throttled two lesser teams before dropping an inexplicable home game to UMKC. It’s an entirely other thing that the loss was sandwiched between two error-prone performances in which the big takeaways were, “Jordan Wilmore sure is big,” and, “that Ronnie DeGray III is a great garbage man!”
Cuonzo Martin’s Missouri Tigers are headed to the Jacksonville Classic in search of an identity — on offense, on defense, in the minds of their own fans — and in the unenviable position of fighting to get back into a plane of mediocrity.
Meanwhile, the Southern Methodist Mustangs are in the same position as their Sunday opponents — albeit quite a few more rungs up the ladder. SMU hasn’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament since Tim Jankovich’s first season in 2017, and they’re fighting an uphill battle for AAC supremacy against the likes of Houston, Memphis and even UCF. If they’re anything more than a second tier contender in a mid-major conference, they need results from events like the one in Jacksonville. And they especially need to prove they’re better than the dregs of the Power Five… an arena which Missouri currently occupies.
So with a few more “tune-ups” before the real meat of Missouri’s schedule starts, Cuonzo Martin and his squad are faced with an opportunity to re-assert themselves into the realm of, “teams not getting an NCAAT bid but that also may stop you from getting one.” That being the goal in year five of a coach’s tenure is somewhat depressing, but it’s also the reality Missouri faces. If they wish to climb any higher, they’ll need to manage one step at a time.
Note: These starting lineups are projected.
Like most of the teams Missouri has faced thus far, SMU comes in with a bit of roster turnover, though the Mustangs are also sporting a healthy amount of experience with seven seniors on this year’s roster.
One of the biggest pick ups of the offseason was the commitment of the Weathers brothers, Michael and Marcus, the former of whom comes to SMU as his fourth school in four years while the latter transferred over after three strong years at Duquesne. Michael has been hurt for the past two games, but will provide an immediate two-way boost whenever he returns to the lineup. Marcus is the taller of the two and plays huge for his 6’5” frame. He’s a tenacious rebounder and an efficient shooter from close range. Jankovich also lured sharp-shooting Zach Nutall out of Sam Houston State, though the senior hasn’t had the hottest start to the season. Down low, Tristan Clark comes to SMU fresh off a natty with Baylor and has cleaned up in somewhat limited minutes thus far, turning into almost automatic post offense for the ‘Stangs.
Kendric Davis and Emmanuel Bandoumel will be the biggest issues for Missouri, as the two senior guards have started strong in 2021. Davis is a whirlwind getting to the rim, where he’s just as adept at distribution as he is drawing a foul and earning some easy points from the stripe. Bandoumel, meanwhile, has seemingly cleaned up his turnover issues and honed his outside jumper, which he’s hitting at a 38.5 percent clip early on.
Thus far, SMU has run a fairly deep bench, and it’s worth knowing some of their reserve players. Senior Isiah Jasey won’t get a ton of run despite his starting status, but he’s well above average when protecting the rim and pulling down easy boards. The Mustangs’ trio of freshmen have all pitched in early as well, with Zhuric Phelps providing workable defense and a habit of cleaning the defensive glass, Stefan Todorovic contributing a very useful shot off the bench and Jalen Smith providing some strong combo guard minutes as a junk man who will do the dirty work while SMU’s seniors grab a breather.
When Missouri has the ball…
What to Watch | How do the new guys get involved?
As Sam pointed out in the Northern Illinois Study Hall, the lack of contribution from Amari Davis and Jarron Coleman in the past two games has been glaring. After both led the way in Mizzou’s season-opening victory over Central Michigan, they’ve combined for a total of 20 points on 8-26 shooting against UMKC and Northern Illinois. Growing pains are to be expected with so many new faces coming together, but Missouri has already reached a point where Coleman and Davis need to be the engines of Missouri’s offense. Whether that means fewer, more impactful minutes, getting the ball in their hands more often or simply easing them in their new surrounds, Cuonzo Martin has to find a way to get the two juniors more involved in the offense.
When SMU has the ball…
What to Watch | Does Missouri’s defense translate to a faster pace?
Missouri’s defense has had three drastically different games to start the season: an uneven, but certainly not bad, performance against Central Michigan; an all-time disaster against UMKC; and a suffocating, boa-constrictor-like shutdown of Northern Illinois. Out of the three, Missouri is likely closest to its Central Michigan performance, which may tell us something against the Mustangs.
SMU runs the 54th fastest offense in the country, meaning the Tigers won’t always be able to use their length to strangle SMU into submission in the half-court. A faster paced game may help take the lid off the transition offense, but does Missouri have the athletes to quickly recover in a more run-and-gun atmosphere? If so, the Tigers may be able to live without an average offense… though it won’t be much fun to watch.
SMU 73, Missouri 68 | It’s been a less-than-desirable start to the season for Mizzou Hoops, but KenPom still gives them a one-in-three chance at a neutral court, Quadrant 2 win. It wouldn’t put to bed many concerns about the long-term health of the program, but it also may suggest that the UMKC loss was flukier than we imagined.
Still, it feels like a win in Jacksonville is less important than putting together a complete team game (though the two often go hand-in-hand). While an ugly win would stem the tide of disillusionment, a sense of progress and cohesion would likely do more to quell frustrations. That may be grasping at straws, but when you have little room to go but up, you have to find tiny slivers of light anywhere you look.