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Tigers showing improvement on the defensive end

Phil Pressey of Missouri and Anthony Hickey of LSU chase after a loose ball during last Wednesday’s game in Baton Rouge, La.

Phil Pressey of Missouri and Anthony Hickey of LSU chase after a loose ball during last Wednesday’s game in Baton Rouge, La. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — Phil Pressey has had to wear many hats for Missouri this season.

In the Tigers’ 73-70 loss to LSU on Wednesday, he scored 25 points while taking 21 shots. Saturday against Auburn, the point guard took two shots and scored four points while dishing out 10 assists in a 91-77 victory.

Add the role of defensive preacher to his duties.

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“That’s the one thing I’ve been telling the guys, don’t even worry about your offense,” Pressey said. “Offense will take care of itself, we just have to worry about defense.”

Defense has been something the 21st-ranked Tigers (16-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) have had to rely on more this season than last season. Last year, when Missouri wasn’t playing well defensively, it was often able outshoot teams. The Tigers averaged 80.4 points per game and shot greater than 50 percent from the field, including 39 percent from 3-point range.

This year, Missouri doesn’t appear to have that luxury on a nightly basis. Despite a balanced scoring attack with six players averaging more than nine points per game, the Tigers are shooting 44 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range, both notable drops from a season ago.

The Tigers have made up for it on the defensive end thanks to a more athletic and taller team than last year. Missouri leads the SEC in rebounding margin at 9.2 per game. Last year Missouri was sixth in the Big 12 and had a negative rebounding margin.

“We’ve just got a lot of long athletic bodies and guys that are strong and stuff like that,” guard Jabari Brown said. “We try to take pride in stopping people.”

Missouri has been noticeably more consistent with its 3-point defense this season. The Tigers allowed opponents to shoot 36 percent last season. It got worse as the season went on, rising to 41 percent in conference play. It culminated when Norfolk State hit 10-of-19 3s against Missouri in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think that was the difference in last year’s team and that probably caught up to us at the end,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “But I think we weren’t as good as this team defensively.”

Now, Pressey wants his teammates to understand how important Missouri’s defense is to its success.

“That’s what Phil is always stressing, he says we have to hang our hats on defense and not on offense,” center Alex Oriakhi said. “I think sometimes we hang our hats on offense a little too much and we have to focus on defense and getting stops. As long as we get stops we’ll be fine. I think we have to focus on being a defense-oriented team.”

Pressey’s job of speaking up about defense didn’t come over night. He said last year it was Kim English who took the lead, setting examples by talking on defense and taking charges.

“The communication level was a lot higher than this year’s team,” Pressey said. “We’re getting there every single day. I’m preaching on these guys to keep talking more and I feel like we’re going to get up to that level.”

Oriakhi also has stepped up his level of communication on the defensive end.

“Without communication, our defense cannot be as good as you want it to be,” Oriakhi said. “I just try and take pride and try and talk to guys, always let them know what’s going on. I think that’s going to be key, me talking. When I’m not out there I’m yelling at Ryan (Rosburg) to talk, I’m yelling at Tony (Criswell) to talk. So I think communication is key.”

Despite some of the improvements from last season, there is still room for Missouri to grow on defense. The Tigers are eighth in the SEC in steals at 6.9 per game and rank ninth in the SEC in turnover margin at minus-0.67. They are also allowing 66 points per game, the same number as last year.

To Pressey, it’s obvious why he has to preach defense to his team.

“I have to, I have to,” he said. “It almost came to a point where I didn’t worry about offense. I just worry about the defensive end.”

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