Missouri men’s basketball silenced on offense in conference opener loss to Tennessee

Missouri dropped its first contest of the season in a buzzer-to-buzzer beatdown by preseason favorite Tennessee.

Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin predicted this kind of game would happen in media availability before Wednesday’s game against No. 7 Tennessee.

“I think you might see some sluggish legs early tomorrow just because both teams will have layoffs, especially at the holiday layoff so you had this,” Martin said. “That first five minutes, hopefully it's a beauty, but it could go the other way.”

It went the other way for not just the first five minutes, but for 40 minutes as the Volunteers humbled No. 12 Missouri 73-53 at Mizzou Arena.

Tennessee grabbed a 23-4 advantage in the opening minutes and never looked back. Once the Volunteers grabbed a double-digit lead, Missouri trailed by double-digits for the rest of the game, as a 13-point margin was the closest they would come to the lead.

Tennessee ran with a full-court press early to get Missouri off their game. While the Tigers adapted to full-court pressure when they’ve faced it at certain points, most notably during their game against Oregon, they had trouble adjusting and had to use a timeout in the first few minutes after they were nearly called for a five-second violation.

“We’ve just got to make sure that we're moving on offense,” redshirt senior guard Dru Smith said. “It seems like when we come out for some reason those first four or five minutes we’re pretty stagnant, so just getting the ball moving, getting into our stuff, getting some motion going around, not just standing around and watching.”

Tennessee couldn’t miss a shot while Missouri couldn’t make one. While the Volunteers went a 15-0 run and had their first possession without points seven minutes into the game, Missouri recorded more turnovers (five) than points (four) until the 11:07 mark.

The Tigers’ ice cold start was the product of a second consecutive sub-40% shooting effort and a monstrous Tennessee defense.

If there was one player that defined Tennessee’s thorough thrashing was senior forward and reigning Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons. The tall Frenchman was a defensive machine who set up an impenetrable force field around the hoop and swatted away four Missouri shots.

“He might be sixth or seventh on the team for scoring and statistics, but I think he's probably the most valuable guy on both sides of basketball,” Martin said. “My opinion of what he brings to the table is athleticism, especially on the defensive side of the ball where he was blocking shots or changing shots.”

Freshman sensations Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer showed why they are two of the best prospects in the upcoming draft with 19 points between them and a stellar defensive shift. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes knows he has an embarrassment of riches when he can bring in two five-star freshmen off the bench.

Junior guard Xavier Pinson was the only player on Missouri to score more than four points in the first half, but most of his points came from the foul line. He also chucked up an ill-advised transition 3-pointer when the Tigers could have slowed the ball down and gotten a smarter shot to cut the margin down to 10 points.

Missouri had some plays where it looked like they could build some momentum, then Tennessee came up with a shot to distance themselves further. Worse yet, many of the shots were either tough shots that hit nothing but net or the Volunteers got second or third chance opportunities

The Tigers closed the deficit to 38-25 before the half. All things considered, the Tigers were lucky to make a second-half comeback feasible. Missouri made seven field goals in the first 20 minutes, a milestone its opponents achieved less than six minutes into the game.

The second-half comeback was not feasible, as Tennessee left the locker room even more dangerous.

The Volunteers picked up right where they left off after the intermission with a 7-2 run in 94 seconds. After sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi nailed a 3-pointer, Tennessee applied full-court pressure, got a steal and fed it to redshirt senior forward John Fulkerson for an emphatic slam. Martin had to expend another timeout.

“I think just once again, we just got off a little bit too stagnant, too, too slow,” graduate transfer guard Drew Buggs said. “You know, it kind of hurt Kobe [Brown] made a great move on the first play of the half. We drew a play for him and the refs happened to call it travel.”

Tennessee went on another run, this time outscoring Missouri 14-2 over a four-and-a-half minute stretch. The run was highlighted by some ferocious dunks from Pons, who drove past Missouri redshirt sophomore forward Parker Braun with the quickness and power of a bullet train.

Tigers didn’t hit a field goal for nearly six minutes as Martin gradually put in his reserves to bring the disappointing contest to a close.

The Volunteers never deviated from the game plan they executed perfectly over the first six contests. They spread the scoring around, with four players recording double-figure points, while playing a cold and punishing defense.

“Give Tennessee credit, they played well on both sides of the basketball,” Martin said. “They did a good job winning the game, getting key offensive rebounds, getting timely threes and enough to win the game.”

Wednesday’s contest was reminiscent of the Bradley game from eight days prior, except without the stifling defensive performance that prevented the Braves from running away with the game. The Volunteers shot significantly better from all three levels than Missouri’s opponent last week and put the game away early.

Missouri impressed in non-conference, but the shooting woes against Bradley repeated for a second consecutive game. The Tigers have a lot of work to do on the offensive end if they want to compete in the upper echelon of the SEC.

“The great thing about league play is it turns around quick so you don't have a lot of time to sulk about it,” Martin said. “Some of those things we paid for tonight. We gotta get them corrected.”

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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