Here’s why it would be important for Kentucky to win the SEC title
Five things to know about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, the Missouri Tigers:
1. A preseason injury set the table for Missouri’s struggles
The story behind the Tigers’ 12-12 overall record and 3-9 conference mark can be traced back to 6-foot-11 power forward Jontay Porter tearing his ACL and MCL during a secret scrimmage against Southern Illinois back in October.
The younger brother of former Tiger Michael Porter, Jontay reclassified to play with his brother last season at Mizzou. Alas, Michael Porter missed all but three games of the 2017-18 season because of back surgery. He then went pro where he was taken as the No. 14 overall pick by the Denver Nuggets.
Jontay Porter averaged 9.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots last season as a freshman. He, too, put his name into the NBA draft, but unlike his brother withdrew and decided to return to Columbia. A second-team preseason All-SEC selection, he was expected to be the centerpiece of Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers heading into 2018-19.
Without Porter, Mizzou has struggled. Martin’s team went 9-3 in the pre-conference portion of its schedule with a road loss to Iowa State, a neutral floor loss to Kansas State and a home loss to Temple. The Tigers opened 1-6 in SEC play, but have gone 2-3 in their last five games with home wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
2. Porter’s absence has put pressure on Jeremiah Tilmon
The 6-10 sophomore from East Saint Louis is averaging 10.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. His problem has been foul trouble. Tilmon is averaging just 24.4 minutes per game and has fouled out eight games, including the Ole Miss game where he played just 15 minutes with four points and four rebounds.
Before that, however, Tilmon had gone eight straight games where he played 26 or more minutes. He scored 15 points in the 86-80 overtime loss to LSU in which the Tigers blew a 14-point lead in the final three minutes. Tilmon scored 15 points in a 92-58 loss at Auburn and 19 points in a 77-67 win over Vanderbilt.
He had 21 points in Missouri’s 79-78 win over Arkansas on Feb. 12. Tilmon made eight of 11 shots from the floor and was five of six from the foul line. On the season, he’s shooting 57.1 percent from the floor. As a freshman last year, Tilmon averaged 8.9 points per game while shooting 56.4 percent from the floor.
3. Missouri has relied on young guards
Jordan Geist, a 6-2 senior and former junior college transfer, is Missouri’s leading scorer at 14.2 points per game. The Fort Wayne, Ind., native scored 23 points in Missouri’s 75-65 loss at Ole Miss on Saturday. A snow storm in Columbia delayed the Tigers Friday departure and the team ended up flying out on Saturday morning. It arrived in Oxford just 90 minutes before the game.
Around Geist, however, is a group of freshman guards in Torrence White, a 6-5 native of St. Louis; Xavier Pinson, a 6-2 native of Chicago and Javon Pickett, a 6-4 freshman from Belleville, Ill. Pickett, who has started every game for the Tigers this season, is averaging 8.3 points per game. Pinson is averaging 6.5 and Watson 5.2.
Missouri’s biggest problem has been turnovers. The Tigers turned it over 25 times last week at Ole Miss, including 15 in the first half. Points off turnovers read 17 for the Rebels, 0 for Missouri. The Tigers rank 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy, in large part to ranking 318th in turnover percentage. Mizzou is turning the ball over on 21.8 percent of its possessions. On the season, Missouri has 267 assists compared to 350 turnovers.
Missouri is last in the SEC in points per game at 68.0. The Tigers are 12th in field goal percentage at 43.2.
4. Missouri does have the SEC’s best three-point shooter
That is if you go by percentage. Mark Smith, a 6-4 sophomore from Edwardsville, Ill., who drew some interest from Kentucky during the recruiting process, has made 49 of 104 three-point attempts for 47.1 percent.
Smith missed six games after spraining his ankle on Jan. 23 in a 72-60 loss at Arkansas. He returned Saturday at Ole Miss, but he scored just three points in 14 minutes. Martin said Monday that Smith would be available on Tuesday though the guard was sore after the Ole Miss game.
Geist has made 52 of 144 three-point attempts for 36.1 percent. Pickett is 28 of 82 from three for 34.1 percent. Watson is 27 of 87 for 31 percent. Pinson is shooting 40.8 percent, but has taken just 49, hitting 20. As a team, Missouri is shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc while holding opponents to 32.6 percent from three.
5. Cuonzo Martin has stabilized the program
After the program landed under Frank Haith’s watch, Missouri hired former Tiger player Kim Anderson, a championship coach on the Division II level. That didn’t work out. Anderson went 27-68 in three seasons, including 8-24 in 2016-17 before being fired. Missouri then lured Martin back to Missouri, where the former Purdue Boilermaker had been the head coach at Missouri State.
From Missouri State, Martin spent three seasons at Tennessee where he went 63-41, including a Sweet 16 berth in 2015. Not as popular as his UT predecessor Bruce Pearl, Martin left for California, where he went 62-39 in three seasons before leaving for Columbia.
Missouri went 20-13 overall and 10-8 last year, making the NCAA Tournament where as a No. 8 seed the Tigers lost to Florida State in the first round. If a healthy Porter returns next season, Martin has a young core of players that bodes well for better days in the future. Tray Jackson, a 6-8 four-star forward from Detroit has signed with the Tigers. So has Mario McKinney, a 6-2 combo guard from St. Louis.
Martin is 2-5 against UK, including 1-4 at Tennessee and 1-1 at Missouri. The Tigers beat Kentucky 69-60 in Columbia last season, before being blown out 87-66 in Rupp Arena.