COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri's offense has struggled from 3-point range since Mark Smith went down with an ankle injury three weeks ago, and was clearly not as dangerous Saturday in a loss to Texas A&M with Jeremiah Tilmon out because of wisdom tooth surgery.
The Tigers (11-11, 2-8 Southeastern Conference) are 1-4 without Smith and 0-1 without Tilmon this season, but both could be back in action this week as Missouri prepares to host Arkansas at 8 p.m. today on ESPNU and go on the road Saturday to face Mississippi.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said on Monday's Tiger Talk radio show Tilmon practiced with the team Monday and is expected back to face the Razorbacks (14-9, 5-5 SEC). He also said Smith could return against the Rebels, "if all goes well."
Without Tilmon against the Aggies, Missouri started Reed Nikko in his place and tried out K.J. Santos at the No. 5 spot too, though he played just nine minutes. Nikko played well and came up with some tough shots and rebounds but fouled out in 19 minutes.
Despite three offensive rebounds apiece from Nikko and Kevin Puryear, the Tigers were clearly lacking a dominant interior presence Saturday, and despite 20 total points in the paint, Missouri did not have an interior bucket for a 17-minute stretch in the second half.
Nikko scored a layup with 18:15 to play in the game, which put the Tigers ahead 34-23. The team's next paint points came on a Jordan Geist layup with :57 left, and made the score 66-57 in favor of Texas A&M.
The problem is clear: with Nikko in foul trouble, Mitchell Smith and Puryear are both more face-up 4s that can space the floor from 3-point range, or in other words, not guys who typically bang around on the block to score from a post-up. The same is largely true for Santos, who played the out of necessity because of Missouri's depth at the position.
That put more weight on the Tigers' guards, who were struggling to get going from outside and were repeatedly stifled by the Aggies' choice to switch on every ball screen. Missouri couldn't beat TJ Starks, Savion Flagg or Wendell Mitchell off the dribble, and the rest is history.
This is where Tilmon is such an underrated aspect of the team's offense. When he's correctly positioning for his guards, Tilmon's a very effective screener because he either draws a guard as a defender if the defense switches, which he can easily exploit, or forces the on-ball defender to fight around the screen, which opens up clear attacking lanes or uncontested shots for the guard he's screening for.
Arkansas is 3-2 since beating Missouri at home forcing 34 turnovers by the Tigers.
The Razorbacks held on for a nervy 90-89 win at LSU in which the Tigers almost pulled off a comeback similar to the overtime Houdini act they pulled against Missouri in late January but were thwarted by a Mason Jones floater with 22 seconds left.
Jones, a sophomore small forward who played a season at Connors State College, has become a focal point of Arkansas coach Mike Anderson's offense, alongside center Daniel Gafford and shooting guard Isaiah Joe.
The trio are hard to stop collectively, accounting for 44 of the Razorbacks' 77 point per game average, and it's because of the varied ways they can score.
Gafford is well-known for his talent above the rim and gets good looks there in Arkansas' fast-paced offense, but he is also shooting 67 percent from the floor this season and a ferocious rebounder. (Tilmon, by contrast, is shooting 56.3 percent.)
Joe is the SEC leader in made 3s and is third in 3-point percentage at 43.9 percent, and Jones is a competent threat from three while also one of the conference's best free throw shooters.