Nearly two weeks ago, it was hard to believe a trip to Columbia, South Carolina, was a must-win for Missouri men’s basketball.
The Tigers had just dismantled then-No. 10 Alabama, vastly outplaying the Crimson Tide for most of the game and becoming the first Southeastern Conference team to defeat them this season. Missouri ascended to No. 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 the following week. Everything looked to be trending up as the Tigers’ schedule seemed to get lighter.
But No. 20 Missouri (13-6, 6-6 SEC) is on a three-game losing streak since then. Every metric — from the Associated Press to KenPom — has the Tigers free falling, and a loss to South Carolina on Saturday likely would result in another plunge .
The Gamecocks (5-10, 3-8) are a feisty but underwhelming team. South Carolina made the Final Four four years ago, but bygone stars Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier aren’t walking through the door anytime soon for coach Frank Martin.
The Gamecocks don’t defend at the same caliber as that national semifinal team. South Carolina ranks near the bottom of every major defensive category, in part due to its lack of size. The Gamecocks don’t have much length with 6-foot-11 forward Wildens Leveque being the only rotation player taller than 6-foot-7.
“The biggest problem we got is we got no personality defensively,” Martin said after his team’s 93-73 loss to No. 19 Tennessee on Wednesday.
The Gamecocks have allowed 80 or more points in seven of their past 10 games, including an 81-70 loss against Missouri on Jan. 19. The Tigers pushed the ball in transition, outscoring South Carolina in fastbreak points 20-7. Missouri held guards A.J. Lawson and Jermaine Couisnard, two of the Gamecocks’ top three scorers, to a combined 11 points on four field goals.
While Couisnard was figuratively nonexistent in the first matchup, he may be literally nonexistent Saturday due to injury. Couisnard (ankle) and forward Justin Minaya (head) — who average a combined 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists this season — did not play Wednesday. Martin said on his radio show Thursday that he’d be “shocked” if Cousinard plays against Missouri, The State newspaper reported, but didn’t rule out Minaya playing.
Their absence was felt against the Vols. The Gamecocks played well early, but fizzled out offensively down the stretch and didn’t take care of the ball, turning it over 18 times.
The Gamecocks may have been shorthanded Wednesday, but they still have their main scorer in Lawson. The junior guard is averaging 18 points per game, which is third-best in the SEC. Despite South Carolina’s four-game losing streak, Lawson has been on a tear, scoring 20 points or more in three of those games.
“Scoring points has not been a problem for this team,” Martin said Wednesday. “Our inability to eliminate turnovers and floor spacing has been.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers have their own starter who may not be available Saturday. Center Jeremiah Tilmon has missed the past two games as he takes a leave of absence following a death in his family.
Missouri is 0-2 without Tilmon this season, losing the rebounding battle in each game. While Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said he expects Tilmon back soon, it remains to be seen whether he will be available Saturday.
If Tilmon can’t go, other Tigers will have to step up in the frontcourt. Forwards Kobe Brown and Parker Braun have played well in spurts, but strong guard play has been more important with Tilmon out.
Guards Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith combined for 38 points against Arkansas, nearly willing Missouri to a overtime win. However, the duo struggled in Tuesday at Georgia, combining for 20 points on 8-for-23 shooting in a 10-point loss to the Bulldogs.
One bright spot against the Bulldogs was Mark Smith, who went 2 of 4 from 3 with three steals. Smith has been up and down this season but had his best statistical game in league play in Missouri’s first matchup against the Gamecocks, scoring 18 points and knocking down three 3s. With the Tigers possibly being without Tilmon and his 12.8 points per game, Smith could be due for another big performance against South Carolina.
It’s not just offensively where Missouri needs to tighten up. In five of their past seven games, the Tigers have given up 80 or more points. Four of those games were losses. Defending without fouling has been an issue, with Missouri committing a combined 42 fouls in its past two games.
“It’s like, somebody has to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and say, ‘OK, here we go, we have to get a stop here, let’s execute it,’” Martin said. “Somebody has to take the torch.”
In the end, the magic number for Missouri might be 75. South Carolina is 0-10 this year when it allows 75 or more points and 5-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 75. The Tigers are 7-2 this season when they score 75 or more points.