Five games, five takeaways: Missouri breaks .500 with combination of defense, scoring bunches and Jeremiah Tilmon

The Tigers have had an up-and-down open to conference play, but all signs point to a strong finish in the SEC.

With five games down, Missouri men’s basketball has started inching its way into contention for the Southeastern Conference crown.

Missouri, who began their conference slate ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 Poll, stumbled out of the gates with a 1-2 record and the postponement of games against LSU and Vanderbilt.

Now ranked No. 19, Missouri got back on the right foot with wins over Texas A&M and South Carolina and now sit at 3-2 in conference play heading into a rematch against No. 6 Tennessee, who beat them by 20 in their first encounter on Dec. 30.

When Jeremiah Tilmon is the best player on the court, Missouri is hard to stop

Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin has done nothing but praise senior big man Jeremiah Tilmon all season, and the praise has become more frequent during conference play.

“You had a lot of talented guys on the floor, but no question [Jeremiah was] the best player on the floor,” Martin said following Tuesday’s win over South Carolina. “I thought he's played well all season long and I’m just happy with the way he's playing. The pace, the poise, the maturity and the things that he says and huddles just makes you feel proud as a coach.”

After two seasons littered with fouling issues and one season affected by injury, Tilmon has come into his own during his senior year. In five conference games, Tilmon has three double-doubles while averaging 16.6 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game.

Tilmon rarely steps out to the perimeter unless he is setting a pick for one of the guards. Aside from that, he swivels from low block to low block looking for entry passes. And once Tilmon receives that entry pass, he makes things happen.

Whether passing out of double-teams or taking the ball himself, he keeps the defense honest. Instead of trying to steamroll through three defenders like a bull in Pamplona, his playmaking ability causes more teams to stick to their man, leaving Tilmon one-on-one in the post.

Another play Missouri has used to get Tilmon easy points is a pick-and-roll alley-oop, which it hadn’t used much during non-conference action. In the contest against Arkansas where he went for a career-high 25 points, Tilmon received many lob passes to hammer home.

On the defensive side, Tilmon is no longer the foul-happy post player whose role in the game was often diminished because he had to sit so often. This year, Missouri’s starting forward only averages 2.8 fouls per game, which correlates to a career-high in minutes per game and rebounds per game.

Tilmon has performed at an All-SEC level through five conference games and he will solidify his spot among the best the conference has to offer if he stays on track.

Defense wins championships

The defensive start to conference play has been comparable to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to say the least, with some historically great defensive performances to go along with some rather porous efforts.

Let’s start with the positives. When Missouri’s defense is on point, it is a tough matchup for any team in the SEC. In all three conference wins, every opponent shot below 40% from the field, including a historically stalwart 26.8% percentage against Arkansas, which was the worst shooting percentage by an Arkansas team in the 27-year history of Bud Walton Arena.

Missouri can be great at getting stops and can translate defense into offense in a heartbeat. The most dominant performances for Martin’s squad come when other teams go on droughts and the Tigers attack the opening for 10-0 or 12-0 runs to create separation.

On the other hand, Missouri’s opponents shot at least 50% of their shots in both SEC losses thus far. The Tennessee game won mostly due to defensive excellence from the likes of Yves Pons and Josiah-Jordan James, but they also shot an even 50% clip. Mississippi State rode a huge second half comeback where the Bulldogs made over two-thirds of their second-half attempts.

Cuonzo Martin said,”Our DNA is defense,” and that is why it is so crucial that the Tigers make stops. The offense ranks 11th in conference points per game and needs all the help it can get from great defensive performances from the team that allows the second-lowest field goal percentage in the conference.

Start the halves fast

How Missouri starts both halves is crucial in determining the outcome of the game. Missouri can build momentum right after tipoff or come out of the halftime break with a full head of steam fairly consistently and ride the wave of momentum to victory.

In their two losses, the Tigers had two bad starts out of the gate and paid dearly for it.

One of those losses came from a flat start against Tennessee, where the Tigers revved their engines only to sputter and break when it was time to drive. The Volunteers opened the game on a 23-4 run that lasted 8:53.

The Tigers never recovered and lost by 20.

Missouri changed things up in its third game against Mississippi State. This time, it was the Tigers who started out hot and they led the game by 12 going into halftime. However, Missouri faltered with a dismal second half and lost 78-63 as the Tigers were outscored by 27 points in the final 20 minutes.

“Instead of just continuing like we talked about, just take what they give and make the right play,” Martin said. “We got consumed with us having to lead and not making the plays that got us there in the first place and we paid for it.”

Scoring in bunches gives the entire team confidence coming out of the half as Missouri used some big runs to pull away in their most recent wins against Texas A&M and Arkansas.

Early scoring has proven key throughout not just conference games, but the entire schedule. The first eight or so minutes of each half have determined how Missouri is going to fare in the next 12 in many games this season, and the Tigers do not want to risk any slow starts coming out of the locker room then play catch up the entire game.

Martin’s confidence in Kobe Brown has shown in recent playing time bumps

Martin has started sophomore forward Kobe Brown in all 11 games this season, but the playing time the coach gives him is fairly pedestrian.

Up until last Saturday, Brown only played more than half the game on one occasion. He had several strong efforts despite the limited playing time, establishing himself as an invaluable two-way forward, but the minutes still hadn’t shown up.

In the last two games, Brown’s role increased with added playing time with 23 minutes against Texas A&M and 26 against South Carolina last Tuesday. Martin was impressed with what the youngest member of Missouri’s starting five did in his time on the court Saturday.

“I thought this was, in my opinion, Kobe’s best game since he’s been in a Mizzou uniform,” Martin said. “In my opinion, that physical brand and going toe to toe, I thought he did a great job.”

While there have been flashes of brilliance from redshirt senior forward Mitchell Smith, a defensive stopper off the bench who can hang with smaller players effectively, Martin’s faith in Brown to start and play meaningful minutes is a step in the right direction for a player who has two years of eligibility remaining after this year.

Missouri is in a good spot as February approaches

Missouri is one of several teams duking it out in the middle of the SEC table and the Tigers find themselves not too far from the pole position.

For a team projected to finish 10th in the SEC at the start of the year, Missouri is in a good position to earn a bye in the SEC Tournament as one of the best four teams in the conference. It was Martin’s first season at the helm when Missouri last went 3-2 to open conference play and that team earned a berth into the NCAA Tournament.

Nearly every team is still trying to figure out its identity. Alabama is the only team that has completely found its footing in SEC play, as they are 7-0 with a handful of wins against top-tier SEC squads and a No. 18 ranking in this week’s AP Top 25.

Even Tennessee, the No. 6 team in the nation who beat Missouri handily, has two losses to its name, including a 75-49 drubbing at the hands of Florida on Tuesday.

There’s no clear cut favorite to win the regular season title, even though Alabama sits two games atop LSU in the standings. That favors Missouri, who is still trying to figure out a consistent strategy of its own.

With Missouri’s non-conference success, especially against nationally-lauded programs, the Tigers have a lot of pressure off their backs in conference play.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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