Guard letdown: Inconsistent backcourt dooms Missouri men’s basketball against Oklahoma

Xavier Pinson, Dru Smith and Mark Smith all showcased flashes of brilliance, but incomplete games from all three bogged down the Tigers in their opening-round loss.

It has often been said that teams with great guards thrive in the NCAA Tournament environment, and for No. 9 seed Missouri men’s basketball, the Tigers’ guards couldn’t live up to the mantra.

While Missouri’s primary starting guards redshirt senior Dru Smith, senior Mark Smith and junior Xavier Pinson each had their moments Saturday against No. 8 seed Oklahoma, it wasn’t enough to offset the play from Oklahoma senior guard Austin Reaves and junior guard Elijah Harkless in the 72-68 loss.

The Tigers started the game at the fast pace that coach Cuonzo Martin wanted to run at the start of the season. Missouri forced turnovers, grabbed missed shots and pushed the ball ahead for easy baskets in the early going.

Pinson was the biggest beneficiary of the pace and made a positive impact right away. He contributed to Missouri’s first three buckets on two assists and a transition layup.

The junior guard’s playmaking ability shined through in the first half with five assists, but his shooting touch evaporated after his first bucket. With little ball movement, Pinson ran some iso moves to try to free up 3-pointers, but missed every shot he took for the rest of the first half.

Missouri’s leading scorer is crucial to the Tigers’ success as evidenced by the team’s 9-1 record when he scored 15 or more points.

Because of Pinson’s importance, questions were raised when he only played four minutes in the second half. Martin said that it was not Pinson’s poor play to end the first half that caused him to only get 18 minutes worth of action, but rather the performance of grad transfer guard Drew Buggs that prompted the minutes reduction.

“We got a real flow with Buggs,” Martin said. “We got back in the game with Buggs and it just went from there. I thought Buggs did a great job on both sides of the basketball.”

While Buggs was on the floor in the second half when Missouri rebounded from a nine-point deficit, it was not necessarily a product of his brilliance that sparked the rally. He hit a layup to cut Oklahoma’s lead to four, but most of the heavy lifting was done by Dru Smith, who had a first half to forget in Indianapolis.

In 19 first-half minutes, Dru Smith hit a lone 3-pointer and missed the rest of his five shots. Meanwhile, his matchup with Reaves went in favor of the Oklahoma senior, who shot 4-8 and tied Mark Smith for a first-half high of nine points.

Dru Smith came out of the locker room on a mission and put on a performance that showcased to a national audience why he was an First-Team All-SEC honoree. The redshirt senior leader lived behind the arc and produced 17 points on 5-8 shooting from three.

When Missouri trailed by eight points with just over a minute remaining, all the Tigers wanted the ball in Dru Smith’s hands, and he repaid their trust in him with two huge 3-point shots to make it a competitive game.

“He never gives up,” senior forward Jeremiah Tilmon said. “We trusted him with the ball, and at the end of the game, each play we were trying to get the ball in his hands so we can make shots. We trust him 100%.”

The only problem was no other guards — not even Buggs with his 16 minutes of second-half action — pitched in and helped Dru Smith.

Mark Smith rebounded from his deep shooting woes in the conference slate to sustain Missouri’s scoring in the first half, where he hit his first three 3-point attempts of the game.

“He works extremely hard,” Martin said. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be successful, make shots, make plays. He puts the time into it so it's great to see him transition like that just to make shots.”

Past the nine-minute mark of the first half, however, he didn’t get many looks and never converted another field goal.

In comparison, Reaves and Harkless played consistent basketball. Even without their second-best scorer, sophomore guard De’Vion Harmon, the Sooners offense hummed along and outplayed Missouri’s guards.

Harkless shot 6-10 from the field and recorded a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Reaves wasn’t nearly as efficient from the field, but he got to the charity stripe 12 times and went 10-12 from the line.

The Tigers rose to prominence this year on the back of great guard play. Mark Smith was named SEC Player of the Week in early December and opened the season with four-consecutive outings, with at least 15 points. Pinson was the X-factor in most of Missouri’s wins and could be primed for a big senior season if he takes better care of the basketball. Dru Smith was the team’s steady hand, always making great reads on both sides of the ball while quietly pumping out 15-20 points per contest.

Saturday’s loss was a fitting way to end the Tigers’ season: flashes of prowess and excitement from the guards, but dragged down by incomplete efforts in narrow defeat.

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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