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PREVIEW: Missouri @ Arkansas; PLUS Q/A with Missouri Hoops Insider, Matt Harris

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: Missouri Tigers
Date: Saturday, January 2
Time: 11:00am
Place: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville, Arkansas
TV/Streaming: CBS
All-Time Series: Arkansas leads 28-25
All-Time Series at Arkansas: Arkansas leads 17-9
All-Time Series when Missouri is ranked: Missouri leads 3-2

Keep Your Friends Close And Your Enemies Closer

I talked with Matt Harris about Saturday’s matchup. Matt covers Missouri basketball for SB Nation’s Missouri site, Rock M Nation.

Ben: Missouri got 2 huge wins against Oregon and Illinois then really struggled against Bradley and Tennessee. What has changed from the early season wins to the current struggles?

Matt: The simplest explanation: poor shooting. For Missouri, offensive success hinges on attacking selectively in transition, playing out of pick-and-rolls and getting to the line. Well, opponents started bailing out, sprinting back and setting up transition defense. Once MU sets up, they also play conservative ball-screen defense and shrink the floor. The only way to break that scouting report is to stretch defenses, but for the past two seasons – outside of Mark Smith – that’s simply not happening. The result in as an offense that’s ground to a halt.

Ben: Cuonzo Martin finally has a healthy squad to coach. He has been the unluckiest coach in the SEC in his tenure so far. When healthy, what do his teams bring to the table?

Matt: While Martin’s adapted offensively, his teams are still built around a gap-based defense and winning the rebound war. Now, he’ll let Dru Smith gamble for steals when he stunts in on drives, but MU wants to force you to take shots from bad spots on the floor and limit your second possessions. This season, they’re playing with a faster tempo and a stripped down offense. When it’s working, Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson hit gaps, Jeremiah Tilmon can roll, and you can kick to Mark Smith on the weak side for open 3-pointers.

Ben: Missouri is shooting 27.3% from 3 this season. Why is that? Is the offense not providing open shots? Or are the players not executing?

Matt: Since last season, Mizzou’s adapted its offense multiple times, moving from playing off Tilmon in the block to more off-ball screening and, finally, to its current pick-and-roll based attack. Ideally, MU creates corner 3s, which are better-suited for guys like Javon Pickett, Mitchell Smith and Kobe Brown. Regardless of scheme, though, the Tigers haven’t seen their accuracy improve. At this point, my general view is that its rooted in personnel. The hope has to be that players aside from Mark Smith find a way to shoot 30 percent, which would get them toward the edge of competent.

Ben: Which Missouri player has surprised you? And which player does Missouri need more from?

Matt: Mitchell Smith’s move toward combo forward. When Kim Anderson recruited him out of Van Buren (Go Pointers!), he was a traditional big who could face up at the elbow and play in the high-low offense that was his base system. Now, he’s a competent switch defender and shown more fluidity than I ever expected. He’s not going to give you much offensively, but having his length and versatility at the other end is handy. As for who needs to be more consistent, I’d say Mark Smith. He has a tendency to disappear against better opponents, and when that happens, the wheels fall off offensively.

Ben: What are the keys to a Missouri win on Saturday?

Matt: Obviously, will MU make enough shots to keep Arkansas from packing the lane. After that, I wonder where they want the tempo to be. Eric Musselman is going to be fine playing at a perky tempo, and while his roster is brewing chemistry, it’s probably more athletic than MU on the wing and combo forward spots. Do you want to get in a track meet with those guys? Mizzou’s going to pose a test defensively, but Arkansas has the kind of athletes – Moses Moody, JD Notae and Desi Sills — that can conjure up offense outside a structured set.

Ben: What is your score prediction and why?

Matt: There might not be a crowd packed in the Basketball Palace, but I’ll take the Hogs at home 72-66. Until Missouri shows it can get back to hitting shots with some modicum of consistency, I have doubts about whether it can produce efficiently. Arkansas will have to work for it, but I’m confident they can put up points.

The Tigers

Record: 6-1 (0-1)
Head Coach: Cuonzo Martin
Notable Wins: Oregon (83-75), Illinois (81-78), Wichita St. (72-62)
Notable Losses: Tennessee (73-53)

It’s hard to believe this is year 4 for Cuonzo Martin at Missouri. The seasoned head coach finally has a healthy team. The Tigers have suffered major injuries during his first 3 years. Denver Nuggets star Michael Porter Jr. missed most of 2017-18 and Jontay Porter missed all of 2018-19. Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith both missed a ton of games last year for Mizzou.

Just terrible luck for Martin, but this year is different. The Tigers returned last year’s productivity and a now healthy Tilmon/Smith combo from a 15 win team.

Because of that, I had Missouri as my sleeper in the SEC this year and they have fulfilled that so far. Big wins over Oregon and Illinois made my prediction look pretty good, but the Tigers have faltered of late. A scary close win over Bradley and a 20-point loss at home to Tennessee have people wondering what this team really is.

Like Matt said above, everything really boils down to this team’s shooting. They are shooting 27.3% beyond the arc this season. That ranks a lowly 306th in the nation. Despite their defensive ability, shooting that poorly is a recipe for losses. There’s no way around it. This Missouri team has to find a way to hit from beyond the arc.

Fortunately, they face an Arkansas team that gave up 15 threes to Auburn on Wednesday night.

The Razorbacks
Record: 9-0 (1-0)
Head Coach: Eric Musselman
Notable Wins: @ Auburn (97-85), Abilene Christian (85-72)
Notable Losses: None

The Hogs are coming off of a big win at Auburn on Wednesday. The Tigers hit 15 threes, but were unable to stop the Hogs.

Arkansas scored 97 points in their first real test of the season. I don’t know how much higher on this team the fans could be after a showing like that.

With that said, expectations should be tampered slightly. I know no one wants to read that, but it is the truth. Justin Smith, the most important player on the team, is questionable for Saturday’s game and going forward.

We don’t know how long he could be out. Smith is a lock down defender and a great rebounder. The depth in the paint is not very deep. Arkansas needs Justin Smith.

Now don’t misunderstand me. This team can win games without Smith. Facing teams like LSU and Tennessee would be a really tough matchup, but I like their chances on Saturday.

Arkansas can’t allow this to be the Auburn game 2.0. Auburn had struggled from 3 all year, but hit their stride against the Razorbacks. If Missouri does the same then Arkansas is trouble.

I think Arkansas’ defense against Auburn was an anomaly. I don’t expect that to happen against Missouri. Mizzou doesn’t have the same level athleticism as Auburn does. Arkansas will be able to guard ball handlers with much more ease. Xavier Pinson will be an issue, but the rest should be containable.

Missouri will make things difficult for Arkansas on offense, but I think Missouri’s offensive struggles continue. Arkansas 71, Missouri 62