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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Missouri

Avery Johnson’s club heads north to Missouri looking to bounce-back from an ugly home loss

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the preview for the match-up with Texas A&M this past weekend, I wrote the following:

A loss to A&M would essentially undo all of the goodwill built up from the previous home game against Kentucky.

Well, consider the goodwill gone. The way Alabama (10-5, 1-2 SEC) loss to the bottom-feeding Aggies at home was inexcusable. The last two Tide possessions of the game were horribly mismanaged by Avery Johnson. Sure, the banked-in 30 footer was incredibly unfortunate, but the game should have never gotten to that point. Even ignoring the blown 11-point halftime lead, the sheer incompetence that was displayed by the Alabama coaching staff in the final 30 seconds was unforgivable.

With 30 seconds left in the game and only 24 left on the shot-clock, up a point, why would you call your final timeout when you have a veteran team that has issues in-bounding the basketball? After Kira Lewis missed his first free throw attempt with 3.6 seconds on the clock, did the coaching staff even consider telling Lewis to throw one off of the front of the rim and contest for the rebound? You know, the thing Alabama does best? Even if A&M gets the board, there would be virtually no time left in the game to do anything. With 3.6 seconds to go, A&M’s not getting off a two point attempt, so a made basket ends the game in a loss regardless.

Instead, the staff tells Lewis to knock it down and play defense. Fine, there is still only 3.6 seconds left. Why would you allow A&M to get the ball to their leader on offense, in-stride, and allow him to get a good look at the basket? John Petty actually played great defense on T.J. Starks on that possession, but he shouldn’t have been in that position. Force Starks to catch the ball 90 feet from the basket with his back turned to it.

It was utterly befuddling. That is the kind of coaching that gets you fired. Period. Not to mention playing Avery Johnson Jr. and Daniel Giddens as much as one of the best scorers on the team in Alex Reese. Absolutely maddening.

Moving on, Alabama heads to Columbia, Missouri looking to make up lost ground. The Tigers (9-5, 0-2 SEC) will be as desperate as A&M was to get their first conference win of the year, so it won’t be easy to come away with a ‘W’, even though Cuonzo Martin’s team lacks talent.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’2 Jordan Geist (13.8 PPG, 3.1 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.3 SPG)

GUARD 6’4 Javon Pickett (8.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG)

GUARD 6’4 Mark Smith (11.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.8 SPG)

WING 6’7 Kevin Puryear (9.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.5 SPG)

POST 6’10 Jeremiah Tilmon (9.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 0.9 BPG)

Missouri is in a very similar position as Texas A&M this season. Both teams lost the overwhelming majority of their production from last year, and are having to go through a rebuild. After Jontay Porter tore his ACL in October, the Tigers only have three guys back from last season that played significant minutes,

The first of those returners is Geist. He’s really much more of a traditional two-guard, but he’s had to step up and man the point due to the lack of options for Mizzou. He’s done a nice job though, as he’s continued to score at a strong clip (40.1%/35.4%/77.0%) despite focusing more on his distributing skills (3:2 assist-to-turnover ratio, 21.3% AST%). Joining him in the back-court is the freshman, Pickett, and Smith, a transfer from Illinois. Both of these guys are shooters (Pickett: 42.6%/39.6%; Smith: 45.0%/47.3%/76.7%), although Pickett has struggled from the free throw line in his freshman campaign (47.6%). The Tigers play inside-out and try to get these two open off of cuts and picks for catch-and-shoot opportunities. It’s a major part of their offense.

In the front-court, Kevin Puryear returns for what has to be his 19th season in Columbia. His length has always made him an effective player for the Tigers, but he’s really increased his shot-making in his senior season (42.7%/42.4%/71.1%), which only adds to Mizzou’s arsenal from down-town. What really makes or breaks this team though is the play of their lone true post player, Tilmon. He has serious issues with foul trouble, averaging nearly three fouls a game, and when he is off of the court, the Tigers really struggle to defend the basket. He’s a rare asset offensively in today’s game, as he is a true back-to-the-basket big, He scores at a 54.4% clip, and as mentioned previously, Missouri gets a lot out of his passing from the low block.

The Bench

GUARD 6’2 Xavier Pinson (5.3 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.9 RPG)

GUARD 6’5 Torrance Watson (4.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG)

WING 6’8 K.J. Santos (2.2 PPG, 2.0 RPG)

POST 6’10 Mitchell Smith (2.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG)

POST 6’10 Reed Nikko (2.4 PPG, 1.5 RPG)

Mizzou’s bench is made up of guys who lack production this season, but have a lot of potential. Pinson and Watson are both freshmen guards who should be fine players for the Tigers for a long time. Both are shooting exactly 37.0% from three, so Missouri is not short on guys who can hit from distance. Smith is one of the few plus defenders on the roster, and is second on the team with a 13.5% REB%. It’s not hard to envision these guys all being productive players for Missouri over the next few years. Nikko provides veteran leadership, but he’s simply not a very talented basketball player. With that being said, he was effective protecting the rim and attacking the glass against Alabama last season, so he shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Defend the Perimeter. Missouri is solid, well-coached team in the middle of a rebuild. Making the NIT would be an accomplishment for this group of young guys. However, the one kicker when playing them is that they can shoot the basketball. At 39.4%, the Tigers are 14th in the country in 3P%. If a couple of guys get hot at home, Alabama will most likely be looking at a 1-3 start to conference play.
  2. Defense in General. What happened to the always stout Alabama defense? After winning with defense for years under Anthony Grant, the first three years of Avery Johnson’s tenure seemed to carry over that hard-nosed tenacity that made the Tide a tough out every night. However, this season has been a divergence from that trend. After finishing 48th, 10th, and 20th in Defensive Efficiency in Johnson’s first three seasons, Alabama finds itself at 84th in that metric this year. Even in the big win over Kentucky, Alabama gave up way too many easy looks. Hot shooting from Tevin Mack and clutch free throws late allowed the Tide to come away with a victory that day. Tilmon and Porter wrecked Donta Hall and company in the post last year in Tuscaloosa, and after watching A&M’s back-up center, Josh Nebo, do the same thing on Saturday, the interior of Alabama’s defense is officially on watch. They have to do a better job at defending bigs who can actually play with their back to the basket.
  3. Get to the Rim. Missouri’s biggest weakness is their inability to defend the basket, especially when Tilmon isn’t in the game. Lewis, Mack, and Dazon Ingram need to be attacking all night. Hall will need to be ready to slam home any and all opportunities that come his way, because there should be quite a bit.

Believe it or not, despite Alabama’s second inexcusable home loss of the season, the Tide is actually still very much in play for the NCAA Tournament. If Alabama can come away with a solid road win tonight, they will be about where most people expected them to be four games into SEC play at 2-2.

However, this won’t be an easy match-up. Mizzou may not be a great team, but they are sound and just good enough in certain areas that it’s not difficult at all to see them winning at home tonight, even though Vegas actually lists Alabama as a one-point favorite.

The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.