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#12 Missouri at Auburn Game Preview, Q&A, and Open Thread

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Auburn plays 2 of the Top 12 teams in America this week, starting at home with Missouri tonight.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday January 26, 2021

#12 Missouri Tigers at Auburn Tigers

Auburn Arena

Time: 8PM

Network: ESPN2, Auburn Radio Network

After a record setting performance in Columbia, South Carolina, it’s time to face the other Columbia team in the SEC. And this will be quite the task for Auburn as 12th ranked Missouri comes to town fresh off a nine point win in Knoxville Saturday night and moved up 7 spots in this week’s AP Top 25. Add Auburn’s game Saturday at #2 Baylor to the list and this will be quite the week for Bruce Pearl and the team.

During this preview, you will see commentary from Rock M Nation’s Matt Harris, who was kind enough to give us his thoughts on a really good Missouri team. Matt’s thoughts are in bold below.

Get to Know Missouri

This Missouri has no shortage of experience on this year’s roster and the makeup reminds me a bit of the previous 2 Auburn teams. All but one of their contributors is either a junior or senior this season. That said, this was a huge season for Cuonzo Martin as he had yet to find the success he was hoping for since returning to the SEC.

“The entire rebuild has reached a crucial juncture in Columbia. Obviously, injury luck has been a problem. But in the background, there were also some critical recruiting misses and inconsistent player development. During the spring, Mizzou made a concerted push to land a proven scorer in Bowling Green wing Justin Turner, who ultimately pulled his name out of the transfer portal. A couple of weeks later, David DeJulius picked Cincinnati as his next home after Michigan.

Why does this matter? MU’s run this roster back, but it spent the offseason trying to retool a bit to find a proven threat out of ball-screens or a knockdown shooter. Cuonzo Martin doesn’t make those moves if he feels entirely secure in what he’s bringing back.

As for the players, urgency seems obvious. Until the NCAA offered an additional year, five were set to exhaust their eligibility. Now, Martin’s job wasn’t in jeopardy, but questions were creeping up about whether his blueprint might work, especially with a reset looming next year. That’s a long way of saying some pressure exists.”

This season, it appears Cuonzo has hit the right buttons as Missouri comes in 10-2 (4-2 in the SEC) this season. The two losses came at home against Tennessee where they were punched in the mouth early but got their revenge on Saturday and then an awful second half at Mississippi State where they were outscored 51-24 in a 15 point loss.

Five of Missouri’s 10 wins are Q1 wins and they are 1 of 2 teams in America that can say that. The other? Gonzaga, and well, we know first hand how good they are.

“Those wins reflect a trait veteran teams display: capitalizing on opportunities as they arise. Against Oregon, the Ducks were missing their leading scorer, Will Richardson, and a key transfer in LJ Figueroa was still waiting on a waiver. Meanwhile, MU literally won a coin toss that gave them homecourt advantage for Braggin’ Rights. And in Knoxville, they ratcheted up the pressure on Tennessee, which was without Jaden Springer.

Don’t get me wrong, they’ve played well. The Tigers knocked down enough 3-balls to handle the Ducks. The bench came through when foul trouble sidelined MU against the Illini. And they generated transition chances against a stingy Vols defense. Entering the year, I wondered whether this roster had enough experience or mettle to win those types of games. Turns out, it might.

Zooming out, those Quad 1 wins are insurance if MU stubs a toe at Ole Miss or South Carolina.”

Despite being ranked 12th in the AP Poll, Missouri finds themselves at 32 in the current KenPom rankings. Missouri is 58th in Adjusted Offense and 170th in Adjusted Tempo. They are also 10th in Luck. FWIW, Auburn sits at 270th in KenPom’s luck ranking.

And while they average just 72.4 PPG this year, they’ve won a lot of games on the defensive end along with their physicality which will go a long way in determining tonight’s outcome.

“Martin relies on a gap-based approach while giving Dru Smith some freedom to probe and gamble for steals. The Tigers won’t apply heavy on-ball pressure, but they’re outstanding at rotating, stunting into gaps, and sinking and filling on the interior. They understand what the scouting report demands and execute it cleanly. And when you look at the Tigers’ substitution pattern, the priority is on the defensive end. MU sits down, forces long possessions, secures rebounds, and is opportunistic in pushing on a secondary break this year.”

Missouri has 4 guys in double-figures scoring but are led by Junior Guard Xavier Pinson (#1) who is averaging 14.1 PPG this season while shooting 30% from 3 and 80.6% from the free throw line. It was a tale of two games for Pinson last week as he had just 2 points in their game against South Carolina but then exploded for a season high 27 points, making all 3 of 3-point attempts and shot 10-14 overall from the floor. Last season, Pinson had 28 points in their 85-73 upset win over Auburn.

“If you watched Mizzou last week, you saw a summation of Pinson’s career. Against South Carolina, he struggled mightily, playing carelessly with the ball while pushing the tempo and making some questionable decisions out of ball-screens. While he has a knack for throwing some jaw-dropping passes, you can still frustrate him and short-circuit his processing of reads with the ball-screen coverage.

Against Tennessee, though, he got going by rejecting screens or splitting defenders after waiting for Tilmon to set what amounted to ghost screens. He also had an outlier night as a spot-up shooter. UT switched up its approach in the second half, playing more drop coverage to slow him down.

A team that excels at transition defense and has big men with length and mobility in the half-court can frustrate him a bit. That said, he’s attack-minded and capable of putting pressure on your internal rotations if he knifes into a seam.”

Speaking of people who had major success against Auburn last year, next up is Senior guard Dru Smith (#12). Smith, like Pinson, also scored 28 points for Missouri in last year’s game, a career high. This year, he’s averaging 12.6 PPG and shoots 38.1% from 3-point range. Dru is also an 85.3% FT shooter.

“He (Smith) quietly fills the box score. Seriously, you might not notice a layup on a break, a spot-up 3-pointer, or a floater in the lane. Or a couple of smart dump-offs to the short corner. And how he’ll poke the ball free for a couple of steals. To me, he’s MU’s metronome. Even if he’s not scoring, he sets the tempo in so many ways.”

Auburn has a tough matchup inside tonight going up against 6’10” 260 pound senior Jeremiah Tilmon (#23). While Tilmon isn’t a perimeter threat, he’s shooting 63.5% from the field this season and averaging 11.8 PPG.

“Late last season, Martin elevated a pick-and-roll heavy sub-package to MU’s base offense, and the ripple effects reached Tilmon this season. The senior’s feet always owned nimble feet and soft hands, but now the system maximizes them using him as a roller and cutter. Early on in his junior season, the Tigers offense flowed through him on the block, but it only produced double teams, turnovers, and frustration – and frequently fouls on the other end.

Ironically, putting Tilmon in motion doesn’t jack up his foul count. Instead, it spares him the risk of whistles that Some from jostling and hand-fighting on the block. Sure, he still gets paint touches, but now it might come in on a duck-in after a roll-and-replace action that sets up a high-low feed. That works because Tilmon’s a player who remains engaged without necessarily being the focal point of an action.”

Next up is senior guard Mark Smith (#13), who began his career on the other side of the Braggin Rights rivalry at Illinois before switching sides. Mark is averaging 11.2 PPG and shoots 34.4% from 3-point range. He is also an 83.3% FT shooter.

“MU lacks a crew of floor-spacers, which Mark Smith’s shooting stroke incredibly important. Watch how teams defend MU when he’s sitting. Help defenders sag in, and sometimes they might abandon a player like Kobe Brown or Mitchell Smith in the corner. Having Mark Smith in a weak-side slot is pivotal. As a defender, he understands how to stay even or on top of guards running him through a maze of screens, and he’s sturdy enough to hold up in pick-and-roll defense.”

Rounding out the starting lineup is Missouri’s lone underclassmen contributor in sophomore forward Kobe Brown. For Brown, he will return to his home state tonight as he went to Lee High School in Huntsville. Brown nearly had a double-double last season against Auburn scoring 10 points and pulled down 9 rebounds. This season, Brown is averaging 7.4 PPG.

The 6th man for Missouri is junior guard Javon Pickett (#4). Pickett is averaging 7.4 PPG this season.

“The junior’s traditional statistics and analytic profile won’t leave you slack-jawed, but if he reaches double-figures as a scorer, you should worry. After two seasons as a starter, Pickett’s coming off the bench, and his role has been pared back. Often, he’s going to camp in the left corner, waiting to back cut the baseline or drive the ball off a kickout. Along the way, he might get a couple layups in transition or tally a putback. Each of those plays eases some pressure on MU’s core four players.”

Keys for Auburn

Sharife Cooper is getting a lot of national buzz right now, as he should, but tonight is going to be one of his biggest challenges going up against a sound defensive group like Missouri. Cooper is putting some ridiculous numbers right now and had a double-double at halftime against South Carolina.

According to Sports-Reference, Cooper is 1 of 4 players that are averaging at least 20 points per game and have an assist rate greater than 45%. Cooper is averaging 21.2 PPG, the lowest of the 4 but his assist rate is 57.5%, the best of the 4 on the list. The others: Ja Morant, Trae Young, and Oakland’s Kay Felder. That’s really good company.

Cooper has knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the last 2 games and hopefully his 3-ball will get more consistent as the season rolls along.

It was a bounce back game from Jaylin Williams on Saturday. After just 2 points at Arkansas, Jaylin came back and scored 18 points to go along with 7 rebounds. Auburn needs more this kind of production from Jaylin this week against two tough opponents.

Allen Flanigan continues to surprise everyone with his development this season and set yet another career high in scoring, going for 24 at South Carolina. He’s now shooting 39% from 3-point range after a 4-6 showing on Saturday.

The player Auburn needs a big contribution from tonight is Jamal Johnson who has cooled off since a hot start to begin SEC play. Jamal is averaging just 6 PPG over his last 3 games and just 3-11 from 3 in those games. With Missouri likely to pull all the stops to slow down Cooper, the Tigers need their junior guard to step up and have a big game if they hope to pull the upset tonight.

Prediction

First up is Matt’s prediction:

“Often, Auburn is a nightmare matchup. It plays fast. It can ratchet up the defensive pressure. And it has multiple guards who can punish you out of Bruce Pearl’s modified version of the flex offense. That’s before you consider its home floor is a raucous bandbox.

This year? I’m intrigued. For one, Auburn Arena will be more peaceful. As for Pearl’s roster, it’s one of the youngest among high-major programs. As you might expect, that shows up more on the defensive end. Finally, Missouri’s schematic shift also came with a willingness to play with some pep in its step.

In the past, Auburn’s sped MU up, fed off the crowd’s energy, and had veteran perimeter players piloting its attack – preconditions for a blowout.

That said, Sharife Cooper is a variable we’re all still trying to account for. Based on Hoop Lens data, Auburn’s net rating is 23 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. That’s, uh, impressive. He’s a bit of a chucker as a shooter, but his assist rate (57.5) is gaudy as hell. More importantly, he lends order to Pearl’s backcourt, pushing guys into more natural roles and creating a potent pick-and-roll tandem with guys like JT Thor and Jaylin Williams.

I’ll be bland and call this one a toss-up, but I’ll give the nod to a veteran group on the road.”

Mizzou 71 Auburn 67

As for me, this will be one of the better games on the schedule tonight and biggest home game left on the Tigers schedule. Missouri is battle tested having wins at Tennessee, and Wichita State this season, albeit under different road team circumstances this season. This is an older team that certainly won’t be intimated by the environment.

Auburn was averaging 74.4 PPG before Sharife began playing. In 5 games with Sharife, the Tigers are averaging 86.6 PPG. Can Auburn push the tempo and speed the game up? If they can, then I like Auburn’s chances and as of this writing, they are favored to win this game. As I mentioned earlier, one of Auburn’s role players is going to have to step up and have a big game whether that be Johnson, Devan Cambridge, or somebody else.

I’ve had very little luck when I pick Auburn to win during SEC play so with that said, it will be close but I’m with Matt and I’m taking Missouri in this one.

Missouri 75 Auburn 70