Roundtable: Where does Missouri men’s basketball stack up in the SEC after its hot start?

Missouri enters conference play undefeated for the first time since 2011-12 with new expectations and pressure.

In a year where the preseason media polls projected the Missouri men’s basketball program to finish 10th in the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers have already exceeded expectations through non-conference play.

As the only team in the nation to win multiple games against ranked opponents and a true road game through almost a month of play, Missouri finds itself at No. 12 in the AP Top 25 Poll, the second-best position for any SEC team. Wins over then-No. 6 Illinois and then-No. 21 Oregon showed the Tigers are no joke heading into conference play next week.

As the Tigers plunge into conference play against No. 7 Tennessee this afternoon, The Maneater’s basketball beat sat down for a roundtable.

Who is one player who has stood out so far?

Mason Arneson: There are so many choices for this question because it seems like a new player puts together a standout performance every game, which is a testament to the depth and experience of this year’s team. To single out one player, senior guard Mark Smith established himself as one of the best players in the SEC during non-conference play. He won SEC Player of the Week in the second week of the season with impressive performances against a ranked Oregon side and a competitive Wichita State team. He scored at least 15 points in the team’s first four games before a couple disappointing performances against Illinois and Bradley. When Smith is shooting well, the Tigers are difficult to beat.

It’s great to see Smith at full strength after injuries affected his first two campaigns in Columbia because he provides a deep shooting touch that the Tigers need in the worst way. Smith accounts for 36.8% of the team’s made 3-pointers and is shooting at a 43.8% clip from downtown, the highest on the team. He’s a solid rebounder for someone who plays in the backcourt and can put the ball on the deck and make tough finishes around the rim if the shots from deep aren’t there. Overall, the team is better off on both ends of the floor when No. 13 steps on the court.

Jack Soble: I agree with Mason that Mark Smith saves this team from being truly abysmal with the long ball. Dru Smith has been remarkably consistent, and when Xavier Pinson is at his best he’s very difficult to stop.

But in Missouri’s big wins, Javon Pickett has been sensational off the bench. Yes, he does this every year against Illinois, but he provided a spark against Oregon as well. In those two games, he’s combined for 27 points on 12/18 shooting in 45 minutes, performing like the most efficient player on the team by far.

When he’s not scoring like crazy, Pickett has played his role as a versatile defender very well through six games. He, Kobe Brown and the three Smiths give Missouri outstanding defensive versatility because each of them is capable of guarding three to five positions on the floor. Dru Smith, Mark Smith and Pinson will score more and Jeremiah Tilmon is Missouri’s key presence inside, but Pickett’s contributions off the bench might be what takes this team as far as it can go.

What is your biggest takeaway from the first six games?

MA: The biggest difference between last year’s team that finished in the bottom half of the conference and this year’s team that has a legitimate shot to win the conference is its execution of the basics.

In 2019-20, Missouri ranked 228th in the nation in 2-point shooting percentage and only made 48.7% of their shots from inside the arc. Now, the Tigers rank 75th in the nation in that statistic, with a 55.2% 2-point shooting clip. That equates to nearly three-and-a-half more made 2-pointers per contest, which shows up on the scoreboard with seven extra points from last year. It’s not a flashy change, but it has worked wonders for coach Cuonzo Martin’s squad. Had the Tigers not shot dreadfully in their dramatic win over Bradley, those numbers would be even higher.

When opponents respect the Tigers’ ability to make layups and midrange shots, the defense has to adapt or perish. Even with the changes, opponents leave holes in their schemes where Missouri can attack. Either a double-or-triple team leaves open men on the perimeter, or the ball handler gets to the free throw line, where Missouri has executed brilliantly to open the season.

As a result of better shooting, the Tigers turned close games that they lost last year into victories.

JS: My main takeaway is that experience matters. We knew going into the season that Missouri would have an advantage over almost anyone they play in terms of experience playing with each other and against D-1 competition; the question was how much it would matter.

The answer: it matters a lot.

Missouri has been able to close games like the ones against Oregon, Liberty, Illinois and Bradley like they just haven’t been capable of doing on a consistent basis in the past. They’ve hit key shots (Tilmon’s game-winner on Tuesday), picked key stops (resisting the urge to foul Ayo Dosunmu as he put up a running three-pointer in the hopes of drawing one) and — crucially — been able to put good teams away when they’ve had a late lead.

No way does any other Missouri team in the past five years win every single one of those games. These Tigers are different because they’re battle-tested.

What is your projection for the Tigers moving into SEC play?

MA: Like I said above, this team has a real chance to make some noise in the SEC, especially given the state of flux the rest of the conference finds itself in. Missouri possesses the most experienced roster in the SEC, which bodes well when COVID-19 made offseason preparation more difficult. While other teams have to figure out their chemistry on the fly, most of Missouri’s roster returned after last year and understood how to play with each other under Martin’s guise.

Missouri has two wins over ranked opponents while the rest of the conference has combined for a grand total of zero ranked wins in non-conference play. The only SEC team besides Missouri with a true road win thus far is Ole Miss, who steamrolled sub-.500 Middle Tennessee two weeks ago. Most of the SEC has either not been tested in the early season or has been tested and fell flat on its face (cough, Kentucky, cough). Missouri passed every test it’s encountered in non-conference play and understands what needs to happen in order to hang with the top dogs in the conference.

With that being said, I think the SEC will provide some stiff competition. The conference only has two ranked teams, but four other teams received votes. Tennessee mixes experience with two five-star freshmen and sits as the only SEC team ranked above Missouri in the AP Poll. Arkansas played a weak non-conference schedule but they have some skilled pieces with four four-star freshmen and some valuable transfers. LSU’s one loss came at the hands of Saint Louis and there are some high-profile players on the court in the Bayou.

Also, despite Kentucky’s historically terrible start and team morale sitting in the Earth’s mantle, I cannot count them out. The Wildcats are the Thanos of SEC men’s basketball, for they are inevitable.

I could see several teams impressing throughout conference play, but given Missouri’s hot start and signature wins, I project the Tigers will finish the regular season no lower than fourth in the SEC.

JS: The SEC does look weak, but it’s still very early. On Tuesday morning, Martin said that it’s difficult to evaluate who’s who in the league because some have looked unexpectedly bad. Some of the uncharacteristic play is due to a lack of preparation in a pandemic and some of it is a result of playing fewer non-conference games as usual.

I think Missouri finishes no lower than fourth or fifth too, but the team hasn’t shown any reason for fans not to set expectations higher than that. I’ll warn against overreacting to the Tennessee game — I could easily see whoever wins this game losing to the next one on Jan. 23 — but if Missouri were to come out on top, it would almost certainly make them the SEC favorites and a top-10 team in the eyes of AP Poll voters.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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