Immune to shock: Missouri men’s basketball improved to 3-0 with victory over Wichita State

Cuonzo Martin earned his first 3-0 start in his tenure at Missouri.

Missouri is off to their first 3-0 start since 2013, and from senior guard Mark Smith’s perspective, he could see it unfolding before the season even started.

“In this team, just from the first couple practices how competitive it was and we were all clicking so I feel like I saw this start,” Smith said.

In the first week and a half of the Tigers season, they outperformed the preseason expectations set by the media, where they were ranked 10th in the Southeastern Conference. After a convincing win against Oral Roberts and an upset against Oregon, Missouri is at its best start of coach Cuonzo Martin’s tenure with a 72-62 victory on the road against Wichita State.

Missouri started the game with an offensive outburst similar to what powered their first two victories. The Tigers began the game shooting 5-6 from the field and eventually opened up a 15-4 lead. Meanwhile, the Shockers stumbled early with a 2-13 shooting mark in the first 8:54 and some ugly airballs.

However, Wichita State made some adjustments to its defensive strategy and looked more composed on defensive rotations. Getting the ball into the paint was a tall task for Missouri, who shot 61.6% inside the arc in their first two games. Whenever the ball entered the paint on the drive or an entry pass, the Shockers collapsed in to cause a turnover or force a difficult shot.

The Tigers had to rely on taking shots from behind the arc if they did not want two or three bodies harassing them. Missouri opened up the game by missing their first seven attempts, which allowed the Shockers to work their way back into the game.

Clarence Jackson and Alterique Gilbert provided Wichita State with the scoring production they needed to make it a single-digit game by halftime. Gilbert finished the first half with 12 points, with a layup in the final seconds of the first half to make it 34-30 Tigers.

Out of the break, Missouri was not fazed by their slow end to the half. The Tigers rebuilt their lead to double digits once again by outscoring Wichita State 23-10 in the first 10 minutes of the second half, which Martin attributed to getting the ball up early on high percentage shots.

“We want to take quick good shots, and you don't want bad shots,” Martin said. “If you got a good shot you got to take the shot. I think a lot of it has to do, especially in transition where our bigs run, because if you open up the wings and bigs open you gotta hit them.”

While junior guard Xavier Pinson finished with only three points on 1-13 shooting, his backcourt teammates Mark Smith and redshirt senior Dru Smith filled in the gaps with 37 points combined. Sophomore forward Kobe Brown contributed a season-high 14 points while redshirt sophomore forward Parker Braun produced a career-high eight points.

Mark Smith preached the importance of a balanced attack and everyone is ready to step up when their name is called.

“We don’t really look at whoever’s turn it is,” Mark Smith said. “I just think we play so well together. We’re an unselfish team so we just play and guys know their roles, so I feel like that we join perfectly in order to get wins.”

Much like the first half, Wichita State built a 7-0 run to make it a 10-point game and built some momentum. In years past, runs like that could have smelled the beginning of the end for the Tigers.

But not this year.

For the second game in a row, the Tigers were resilient and composed when their opponent was knocking on the door of a lead. Senior forward Jeremiah Tilmon nailed a jump shot, then redshirt senior forward Mitchell Smith hit a corner three with the shot clock winding down to bring the lead back to 15.

Close games that didn’t go Missouri’s way due to an eroded lead were a staple of Tigers teams in the past. Martin said he can tell if his guys are becoming too comfortable with their lead and makes personnel adjustments on the court.

“We've been in those situations before, and we've come up short on something that's so we were so familiar with that one,” said Martin. “But just really for our guys just finish the basketball game, regroup and understand what we're not doing well.”

The Tigers’ veteran presence and leadership from redshirt senior guard and recent Missouri addition Drew Buggs, who Mark Smith said helps the team regroup during media timeouts.

“They started to heat up, and even in the second half some and we just came together like, ‘Let's finish the game and let's complete the job,’ and that's what we did. I feel like just being an older team having a lot of experience we came together strong enough to finish out the game.”

In its first game against Oral Roberts, Missouri struggled with turnovers. In its second, Missouri gave up too many free throws. Now, in their third game, the Tigers put it all together as they took care of the ball and kept Wichita State out of the bonus for most of the game.

Mix those improvements with balanced scoring, mental fortitude and several hustle plays from the likes of Javon Pickett and Dru Smith, and Missouri’s victory was a Cuonzo Martin game plan executed to near perfection.

When Brown was asked what made the difference between this year’s team and last year’s, he said the team’s maturity has made a big impact, especially when it comes to fixing mistakes.

“I'll say experience and just being more accountable and holding ourselves accountable instead of coach having the host accountable,” Brown said. “Knowing we have what we have to do without coach telling us to do it. Just the things that come with growth and maturity.”

Throughout the game and after Missouri secured its first 3-0 start in seven years, the ESPN2 broadcast team of Chuckie Kempf and Mark Adams were discussing the preseason SEC predictions incredulously. They could not believe that the team they watched lead the game for all but 1:06 and pull off two convincing wins was picked to finish in the bottom half of their conference.

“They’re not tenth,” Adams said. “They’re more like one, two or three.”

Edited by Anna Cowden | acowden@themaneater.com

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