Missouri Falls From the UnbeatensPosted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 21st, 2013
The SEC lost its last unbeaten team Saturday night when Missouri fell to Illinois in a Braggin’ Rights thriller. The annual border rivalry game has a history of producing close finishes, and this year’s version was no exception. The Tigers hadn’t been tested away from Mizzou Arena before this game — they played in front of a home crowd against Hawaii in Kansas City, and no crowd at all in Las Vegas against Northwestern and Nevada. Missouri also faced the best defense it has seen thus far against Illinois (44.4 percent opponents’ effective field goal rate, 33rd in the country). Whether it was the environment, the defense, or Tracy Abrams breaking them down, the Tigers performed well but weren’t quite up for the test. Here are some quick thoughts on Missouri’s first loss of the season.
- Jordan Clarkson is awesome. This was his first true showcase game on national TV (the UCLA game was an early morning start), and he must have turned some heads around the country (22 points, eight assists, six rebounds). Put simply, he’s already got NBA-quality moves attacking the rim. Illinois did a nice job controlling him off ball screens in the first half but Clarkson was able to continuously get in the paint in the second. A rash of Illinois fouls (the Illini were called for seven before Missouri got its first) made him especially difficult to guard. While he’s not a true point guard, he showed again that he can handle the position. He’s also a good attention-grabbing decoy. On two late Missouri possessions, Clarkson was able to penetrate, draw in the defense, and kick out for made threes by Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown.
- Stretch 4’s could hurt the Tigers. Jon Ekey hit a gigantic three with under a minute left that Jonathan Williams III was late to close out on. This was a mini-theme throughout the game. Ekey and fellow Illinois big man Nnanna Egwu went a combined 4-of-7 from beyond the arc. Some of this was due to Missouri crashing in on ball screens to prevent Abrams and Rayvonte Rice’s penetration. Sweet shooting big men are also match-up nightmares by nature, but the Missouri forwards need to be aware when their counterparts leak out to the perimeter.
- Missouri’s supporting cast didn’t have a good showing. Neither did Jabari Brown, for that matter, but his clutch three with under 15 seconds left absolved him in some ways. The game looked too fast for Wes Clark, however. Frank Haith should hand the offense to the freshman point guard a fair amount because playing Clarkson off the ball gives the defense a different look to worry about, but Clark wasted a number of possessions with long jumpers early in the shot clock. It’s good to see his confidence there, but this was a night when he needed to rein it in. Jonathan Williams looked lost offensively in the first half, but made up for it by nailing three field goals in the second.
- Frank Haith and the magic shrinking rotation act. It’s interesting to see how coaches adjust their rotations when the November home games against lower conference teams are over. Haith knocked his rotation down to seven players, with guard Shane Rector and forward Keanau Post not playing in this one. This isn’t surprising because Rector and Post have played sparingly up to this point, but Rector’s development will be important, because Haith is currently only playing four guards. There will be nights one or two of them are in foul trouble, especially if the attacking Clarkson, Brown or Ross picks up an early charge.
What’s next for Missouri: The Tigers head to North Carolina State for their first true road test of the season. This game lost some luster early in the year with the Wolfpack’s loss to North Carolina Central, but it came right back when NC State went to Knoxville and knocked off Tennessee last week. It’ll be important for Missouri to bounce back because they’ll most likely be a bubble team in March.
Final thought: If there is such a thing as a good loss, this was it. Illinois should be in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid, and the Tigers were corralling one loose ball away from a nice win. They were also in that position despite getting a subpar game from Jabari Brown and little from their frontcourt. Clarkson proved he can carry Missouri, but to beat teams like Illinois he’s going to need more help.