With the current position Missouri men’s basketball is in, it must continue to take care of business.
A 91-33 win over Chicago State — the 351st-ranked team in KenPom before tipoff — on Monday night won’t make any waves nationally with pundits or the NCAA selection committee. But it’s an important result because the Tigers got the job done when they were expected to.
Carried by a historic night from Torrence Watson (career-high 24 points on 8 3-pointers, a Mizzou Arena record) combined with coach Cuonzo Martin’s trademark in-your-face defense, Missouri overmatched the Cougars and led wire to wire in a dominating victory.
It was the lowest point total the Tigers had held an opponent to since Dec. 29, 2015, a 78-25 home win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff that was also the lowest single-game point total in Mizzou Arena history.
Chicago State, with one win thus far against a Division I opponent, was flirting with breaking that dubious record for most of the second half as it trudged to the tune of 24 turnovers and 24% shooting. Leading scorer Xavier Johnson (17.7 points per game) didn’t play because of injury, but he likely couldn’t have done much to soften the blow.
But as the Missouri defense was expected to be stellar, Watson’s night was not.
Entering Monday, the sophomore had been in a brutal slump. He had made just nine 3-pointers in 11 games, including going 0-for-6 against Southern Illinois and 0-for-7 against Charleston Southern. A night like this was much-needed for Watson, and he admitted that he took his start to the season hard.
“Not going to lie, I went home at night and I cried a lot of nights,” Watson said in a postgame radio interview with KTGR of Columbia. “I was like, ‘I’m putting in the work; I just want the shot to fall so bad.’ Then my brother told me, ‘Just calm down. I can see that you want it to fall so bad.’ So just my family, my teammates and my coaches — just keeping my confidence up and then just telling me that I can do it — really helped for me.”
Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. (foot) was inactive as a precautionary measure before Southeastern Conference play begins for the Tigers on Saturday at No. 17 Kentucky, a game for which Martin said he “would imagine” Tilmon suits up.
But even without its starting center, Missouri showed no signs of a layoff after the team’s holiday break.
An 8-0 run to start the game turned into a 45-14 advantage at halftime, and by then 10 players had already scored. Junior guard Dru Smith was leading the Tigers in scoring at that point, as Watson had only hit two of his triples.
But Watson came out of the intermission a man aflame, going 6-for-8 from beyond the arc in the game’s final 20 minutes. Martin said he was proud of Watson for keeping himself confident through his shooting woes and that his timing to find his shot is perfect with SEC play looming.
“Great to see him going into conference play shooting the ball like that,” Martin said in the postgame interview with KTGR. “You have to defend him as an elite shooter. He showed it tonight.”
Though Watson was the star of the show, he was just one of the many Tigers to effectively stroke it from deep against the Cougars. Missouri finished the game a season-high 52% from 3 (16-for-31) and had seven players hit at least once — even walk-ons Brooks Ford and Evan Yerkes nailed a triple each in garbage time.
With the exception of center Axel Okongo, who hasn’t played all year (Martin said per a tweet from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Dave Matter that his staff has to “weigh our options” with the transfer big), every player who suited up for Missouri got time on the floor. Every Tigers player on the floor minus Tray Jackson (0-for-2 shooting in 10 minutes) scored, too.
“Yerkes making that shot, I’m not surprised. Brooks making that shot, those guys can make shots,” Martin said in the KTGR interview. “They’re prepared in practice. … They understand assignments on the floor. Normally, in cases like this, we kind of let up a little bit because we’re looking at the score. But they stayed locked in, and that’s one of the things I challenge the guys on: Stay locked in till the buzzer sounds.”
Missouri-Kentucky begins at 1 p.m. Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The game is scheduled to be broadcast on the SEC Network.