Four games that shaped fate of MU basketball’s ‘18 season

Early season adversity led to late season struggles, landing the Tigers near the bottom of the SEC at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 season.
LSU's Ja'vonte Smart signals to the crowd in celebration after hitting a game-tying 3 late in regulation of MU's 86-80 overtime loss to LSU on Saturday, Jan. 25 2018 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.

Cuonzo Martin’s first year at the helm of Missouri basketball led to its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2013. Heading into his second year, a solid core of returning players promised another strong season for the Tigers.

Even with the medical retirement of senior Cullen VanLeer in September 2018 and Evansville not waiving Dru Smith’s transfer at the start of the season, the Tigers still boasted a roster featuring some new and returning big names.

However, adversity struck Missouri early this season, and by the time conference play came around, the Tigers struggled to survive.

Here are four games that could have changed the outcome of MU’s 2018-2019 season.

Scrimmage against SIU, Oct. 21, 2018

Although the public could have potentially never heard of this scrimmage, the events that transpired during the meeting between Missouri and Southern Illinois University were potentially the most season-altering.

Occurring the morning after Mizzou Madness, after which Jontay Porter talked about how good his body felt, the sophomore tore both his right ACL and MCL during the closed scrimmage.

Porter and sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon were supposed to create a dominant front court for Missouri, blending similar size with differing skill sets. As a freshman, Porter led the team in rebounds with 6.8 per game and blocks with 1.7 per game. He was also named co-SEC sixth man of the year. After a summer of training with his brother, Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., who had sat out most of his season with MU due to a back injury, Jontay returned to Missouri even stronger than he was in his freshman season.

Jontay’s preseason injury squashed the prospects of a Missouri front court worthy of national attention, and left the Tigers without their projected star for the second consecutive season.

The younger Porter retore his ACL last week while rehabbing in Denver, a team spokesman confirmed on March 23. He has yet to make an announcement regarding his plans for the 2019-2020 season.

LSU, Jan. 26, 2019

After finishing their nonconference schedule at 10-4, the Tigers lost momentum at the start of SEC play. Consecutive double-digit losses to Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama saw the Tigers 1-4 just one month into conference play, their single win against Texas A&M.

However, Missouri had regained some of the talent lost with Porter’s injury in sophomore transfer Mark Smith.

Averaging 5.8 points in his freshman season at Illinois, Smith scored an average of 12.6 points per game in his first 14 starts as a Tiger. He set a new career-high of 22 points against Morehead State, which he also tied against Arkansas. On Jan. 25, he was ranked No. 5 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage at 47.5 percent.

Smith suffered an ankle injury during a Jan. 23 game against Arkansas and missed six games, starting with the Jan. 26 game against LSU.

Despite a 14-point lead over then-No. 25 LSU with 2:14 left in the game, Missouri dropped it’s fifth SEC loss in overtime 86-80 against the purple-and-gold Tigers. If MU held onto its lead, the win would have been a defining one for Martin’s second season. Instead, the loss became another game in which the Tigers couldn’t pull themselves over the hump.

Texas A&M, Feb. 9. 2019

Smith’s fifth game out after injuring his ankle also saw another gap in the starting lineup: Jeremiah Tilmon. The sophomore sat out February’s matchup against A&M after emergency wisdom teeth surgery. Freshmen Xavier Pinson and Torrence Watson filled in for Smith and Tilmon

Missouri beat Texas A&M 66-43 early in the season for its first SEC win, but when the time came for a home rematch, the Tigers couldn’t top the Aggies.

A 9-point halftime lead disintegrated after Missouri’s lone big — junior Reed Nikko — fouled out in 19 minutes on the court. The Tigers scored just 17 points in 17:49 minutes of the second half on their way to a 68-59 loss against the Aggies.

Florida, Feb. 23, 2018

Just minutes into the second half, Tilmon was called for a flagrant foul and pulled to the bench by coach Martin for 11 minutes. Missouri held a 12-point lead over Florida. With Tilmon off the court, the Gators went on a 24-16 run to bring themselves within one possession of the Tigers.

The second-half comeback, combined with Missouri foul trouble, pulled Florida ahead 64-60 by the time the clock expired.

Although late in the season, a win against Florida would have bumped MU to a 4-10 record in SEC play. With a win in Gainesville, the Tigers would have finished 6-12 in the SEC, right at the .500 line.

While a better record would most definitely have boosted MU in the final SEC season standings, it might have spelled a worse performance in the SEC Tournament. A higher seeding heading into the tournament would have seen Missouri take on another high seeded team, and the Tigers most likely would have played just one game in the tournament.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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