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Matter on Mizzou: Elite Vols give Tigers reality check

January 10, 2019

COLUMBIA, MO. • No reason to spend too long rehashing a thorough thumping by No. 3 Tennessee on Tuesday, so this should take no more than nine minutes to read, which is the same amount of time Jeremiah Tilmon spent on the court against the Volunteers.

Tennessee is going to do that to a lot of teams in the SEC over the next two months. Rick Barnes’ team checks all the boxes for a championship contender.

Star player: Check, check

Dynamic point guard: Check

Skilled big man: Check

Firepower off the bench: Check, check

How good are the Vols? We’re talking about one of the elite SEC teams since Missouri joined the league in 2012-13. Using KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin, Tennessee currently owns the fourth-best rating of any SEC team over the last seven seasons. Here’s where the four best from Mizzou’s time in the league stack up:

1. 2014-15 Kentucky, 36.91 … finished 38-1

2. 2012-13 Florida, 31.18 … finished 29-8

3. 2013-14 Florida, 28.57 … finished 36-3

4. 2018-19 Tennessee, 26.56 … finished ???

The only current teams with higher adjusted efficiency margins through Tuesday: Duke, Virginia, Michigan State and Gonzaga.

STAT THAT MATTERS

61.5: That was Tennessee’s shooting percentage on 2-point shots. The Vols came into the game as one of the nation’s best shooting teams inside the 3-point arc and they lived up to that reputation. Even with Grant Williams struggling to find any rhythm on the floor — the SEC’s leading scorer shot just 1 of 8 — the Vols still scored 40 points in the paint with center Kyle Alexander and guard Jordan Bowen combining to shoot 11 of 14 in the paint on layups, dunks and midrange jumpers. The Vols had five dunks overall, most coming without any resistance from the Tigers at the rim, notably when Tilmon was on the bench sitting with fouls.

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Alexander was a force inside for the Vols. The 6-11 senior played like a first-team All-SEC selection, finishing with 14 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks in 32 minutes without drawing a single foul. That’s two straight strong games for Alexander, who had 12 points and 14 boards Saturday against Georgia.

Alexander is a different kind of forward than Tilmon — he’s about 35 pounds lighter and can occasionally score outside of the paint — but he played with the kind of focus and discipline the Tigers need out of their big man.

“He’s totally focused on playing defense and rebounding and nothing else,” Barnes said. “It’s amazing. We tell our guys, ‘Don’t get locked in on scoring. Just get lost in the game with your defense and rebounding.’ And he’s done that two games in a row. You see he scored, but you could tell a couple times he had the itch to shoot from 3 but he didn’t. He works on that shot, but the fact is you have to give him credit for his approach. He just wants to get every rebound right now.”

LOOKING GOOD

• Missouri got some production out of K.J. Santos off the bench, a combined result of fouls by others and an apparent shift in the rotation. Santos is in as Kevin Puryear’s backup at the power forward position and Mitchell Smith is out. Smith didn’t enter the game until the score was out of hand in the final minutes. Santos, out for months with a foot injury, gave the Tigers a season-high seven points and three rebounds in 26 minutes. He had a 3-pointer blocked from the corner but hit another attempt from deep and got to the foul line a couple times.

“He’s continuing to find his way and his feel on the floor,” Cuonzo Martin said. “He’s a guy who can post up. It was good to see him make a 3-point shot, but it was good to see him score around the rim. He has good athleticism. He’ll continue to display that. I don’t think he’s at the level you see in the game like it is in practice on a day-to-day basis. But I think he’s getting there.”

• Heading into the season and surely after the November loss at Iowa State, point guard looked like a problem area for the Tigers, but without Jordan Geist and Xavier Pinson on the floor Tuesday’s game might have been a bloodbath. Geist was on fire in the first half, finishing with 12 points and four assists. Tennessee cut off his driving lanes in the second half and he was less effective, but Pinson put together some impressive stretches and had a career-high 14 points in 20 minutes. The freshman got to the foul line eight times and made all but one of his freebies.

Maybe most impressive: The team’s two primary ball-handlers had just one turnover in 49 combined minutes. Geist and Pinson finished with MU’s two highest efficiency ratings, at 14 and 11, respectively, and had the highest offensive ratings at 106.5 and 117.9.

• By his account, Puryear spent six days leading up to the game studying film of Tennessee’s Williams and his tendencies on the offensive end. The work paid off as UT’s All-American candidate scored just four points in 22 minutes, the second-lowest scoring game of his career. He hadn’t scored fewer than five points since Oregon held him to three points in 19 minutes way back on Nov. 22, 2016 — a span of 777 days. It was just the fifth time in Williams’ 81 career college games that he was held to one field goal.

“We lost the game,” Puryear said. “At the end of the day that’s what matters.”

NEEDS SOME WORK

• Obviously, Tilmon needs to harness his strength on both ends of the floor, especially when he knows that clever opponents are going to goad him into fouls and flop after the lightest hint of contact. And, as Puryear indicated after the game, officials are watching Tilmon closely. The officials just got done talking to Tilmon and Alexander leading into MU’s third possession of the game when things were getting chippy between the two big men. Sure enough, Tilmon plowed through Alexander in the post, first catching him with an elbow then the rest of his body for an obvious offensive foul. As Alexander sat on the court applauding the foul call, Tilmon tossed him the ball. Just a senseless response considering the officials just finished warning him. With a team short of impact players, the Tigers can’t compete with quality opponents, let alone elite teams, with Tilmon playing single-digit minutes.

Tilmon had a near-empty stat line — three points on 1-of-4 shooting, one rebound, three turnovers in nine minutes — but this stat underscores his value: He was MU’s only player who finished with a positive plus-minus score, albeit at plus-1. MU outscored the Vols by a point with Tilmon on the floor, compared to a 19-point deficit when backup center Reed Nikko was on the floor for his 15 minutes.

• Torrence Watson played 26 nearly invisible minutes. Just two shots from the freshman guard. He missed both but sank a free throw. There’s going to be nights when MU’s rookies play like rookies, but the Tigers need more production from Watson, especially against a high-powered opponent that’s going to put up points.

• Tennessee won the battle of the boards 38-29, the second-biggest rebound deficit for the Tigers in their 46 games under Martin. With the Vols shooting so well, there were fewer chances for the Tigers on the defensive glass, but Mizzou can’t give a good-shooting team so many second chances. Alexander alone had seven of UT’s 11 offensive rebounds.

Gordo: Tennessee schools Mizzou on what a real contender looks like

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