Missouri men’s basketball faces mid-major powerhouse Liberty in final test before Illinois

The Flames went 30-4 last year and beat two SEC foes earlier in the season.

Senior guard Mark Smith said the word “excited” 10 times during Tuesday’s media availability, an appropriate motif for the first two weeks of the Missouri men’s basketball season.

Coach Cuonzo Martin won ESPN Coach of the Week and Smith took home Southeastern Conference Player of the Week honors as the Tigers opened the season with its best start in seven years. They have a major test this weekend against Illinois, but before they can focus on the Illini, Missouri has a pre-test to ace Wednesday against the Liberty Flames at Mizzou Arena.

“We're focused on Liberty this week,” Smith said. “They're a good team, so a big game for us Wednesday. So that's really the focus right now, nothing else.”

The Atlantic Sun Conference champions two years running are not a team to gloss over by any means. Liberty returns 50.6% of its minutes from last season, where the Flames went 30-4 in the regular season last year and secured an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Liberty has wins over SEC opponents in Mississippi State and South Carolina. Three players in this year’s starting lineup received starting opportunities last season, and returners Darius McGhee and Elijah Cuffee are producing at a high level after last year’s three highest-scoring players left.

On offense, Liberty does not shoot the ball at will and takes good care of the basketball. Redshirt senior guard Dru Smith said the Flames run a five-out motion offense that Martin compared to a Princeton style offense.

“It spaces you out,” Martin said. “You got elbow cuts, you got your tight curls, ball screens, slip screens, all of that. It’s more of a mental game cause they play physical, but it's a mental game. You have to be prepared for every little thing.”

A bulk of Liberty’s damage is done beyond the arc as the Flames have 10 more 3-point attempts per game than two-point attempts. Coach Ritchie McKay’s team makes 48% of its shots from the field despite the discrepancy in shot selection.

“It's kind of hard to predict,” Dru Smith said. “it's hard to scout, it's just kind of free-flowing and they're really good at what they do. So I think it's going to be a tough defensive game.”

On defense, the Tigers will go up against a pack line scheme, a loose man-to-man defense setup that prevents easy dribble penetration, which Missouri’s guards thrived off of in its first three games.

With McKay’s defensive style, Martin thinks his team needs to shoot from the perimeter well if they want to succeed against the Flames.

“If you can't make plays and can't make shots, and you can't move the defense from side to side, it'll be a long night for you,” Martin said.

This is the most attention that Martin’s squad has generated during his four years at Missouri. The accolades poured in last week and the Tigers have a chance to add some more hardware in the Braggin’ Rights game.

But for now, all that glitters is not gold.

The Tigers want to mix the excitement Mark Smith mentioned numerous times with a steady focus on the game they play next. The only prize the team is consumed with is changing the number in the win column from three to four.

“At the end of the day, we know that it's just the beginning of the season,” Dru Smith said. “It's too early, and we have a lot of work to do. I think you have to be thankful for it, but at the same time, take it with a grain of salt and keep moving forward.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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