Preview: Missouri looks to upset West Virginia on road

The Tigers enter the game after three consecutive losses.
Forwards Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko play defense on Texas A&M's Jonathan Aku during Missouri's loss to the Aggies. Photo by Kirubel Mesfin

Missouri enters Saturday’s road showdown with No. 14 West Virginia as undeniably heavy underdogs. The Tigers are reeling, having lost their last three games, and at 1-5 in conference play sit at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings, ahead of only the winless Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is 15-3, undefeated at home, and ranks in the top three of the Big 12 in both points scored and fewest points allowed per game. Any statistical measure points to a West Virginia blowout.

But there’s a flip side of playing an opponent as good as the Mountaineers — a flip side Missouri forward Mitchell Smith embraces.

“You can’t draw it up any better than that,” he said. “Especially going to Morgantown, that’d be a really big win. So I mean, we just gotta be focused, do our scouting report and just go in there and play tough.”

Beating West Virginia will have to start down low for the Tigers. WVU’s two leading scorers are forwards Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, who stand 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10 respectively. It’s Missouri’s second game in a row playing a team who’s go-to scorer plays in the post after taking on Texas A&M’s Josh Nebo on Tuesday. Nebo stayed mostly in line with his season averages against Missouri with 14 points and five rebounds while being guarded by Smith and senior Reed Nikko. To contain West Virginia’s bigs, Missouri will look to more double-teams and help defense from its backcourt.

“We’ve seen that they have a really dominant presence down low, so just making sure that we’re blocking out their bigs, doubling them, giving us the best opportunity to win,” sophomore guard Torrence Watson said.

Tshiebwe and Culver are also first and fourth in the Big 12 in rebounding, averaging 9.5 and 9.2 per game respectively. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin’s made rebounding a priority in practice in preparation for the challenge.

“I think coach Martin wanted to talk to us a lot about rebounding, how that can really turn the tide of the game, so me and Reed know [what] we got togotta do down low,” Smith said. “We’re going against two good big players who almost average 10 rebounds a game each, so we just gotta be tough down there and go box out and go grab these boards.”

Offensively, Missouri will look to capitalize on more open shots and 3-pointers than it was able to against Texas A&M, when it shot 9-35 from behind the arc. Martin insisted after the game that the issue was that the shots just weren’t falling; it wasn’t a lack of open looks. West Virginia allows the lowest 3-point shooting percentage in the Big 12, making the ability to take advantage of open looks all the more crucial.

“We’ve got togotta get in the paint like we have been in the last couple games, and jump-stop and kick it out for open shots,” junior guard Mark Smith said. “And I also feel like we’ve got togotta knock down some more open shots this Saturday.”

As important as those 3-pointers are, even the guards are prepared for a physical, in-the-trenches matchup, with Mark Smith and Watson both discussing the importance of the backcourt getting in on the rebounding, anything to take the pressure off the post players going against two of the best forwards in the country.

“The biggest thing for me is just being ready for their post to duck in,” Nikko said. “As a big man, I’ve got to be ready for that. They’re gonna do that every possession and just be ready for a physical game down low.”

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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