COLUMBIA, Mo. — It's been a week and a half since the Missouri Tigers have played an opponent, and Monday, the players' excitement to get back in action and start Southeastern Conference play was palpable.
"I'm not tired of practicing, but yeah, I'm ready to play," Missouri sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon said Monday. "I ain't tired of it, but I'd rather play than practice."
Missouri (9-3, 0-0 SEC) welcomes third-ranked Tennessee (12-1, 1-0 SEC) at 6 p.m. today at Mizzou Arena. The Volunteers, after two years of rebuilding under coach Rick Barnes, took a big step forward in 2017-18, finishing second in the conference and entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed with a 25-8 record.
Tennessee has shown improvement again this season, and brings to Mizzou Arena the SEC's best offense in points per game (86.3), the fifth-best defense in points per game (65.2) and one of the favorites to win conference player of the year in Grant Williams. The 6-foot-7 junior from Charlotte, N.C., averages just shy of 20 points per game, has averaged double-digits in scoring since he stepped foot in Knoxville and has not been held to less than than 13 points in a game this season.
"I think it's safe to say you're talking about one of the five best players in college basketball right now," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Williams and Admiral Schofield, who is third in the conference at 18.2 points per game, along with Jordan Bone (14 ppg) and Kyle Alexander (10.4 ppg), anchor an offense that does damage from close range and at the free-throw line. Williams and Schofield are deadly from beyond the arc, each shooting 44 percent or better. Williams is also one of the top rebounders in the conference (8.3 per game), and Bone's 6.4 assists per game is third in the SEC.
When the Tigers beat the Volunteers 59-55 a year ago in Columbia, Williams, Schofield and Alexander were the only players in double figures for Tennessee and Williams fouled out with five minutes to play.
The improvement in Tennessee's offense, and the reason the team is No. 3 in the nation, is how efficient it is. The lone team to hold the Volunteers below 40 percent shooting in a game this season was Georgia Tech, and Tennessee shot 39.6 percent in a 66-53 win.
Tennessee's one loss was to Kansas in overtime, and the Jayhawks did so as the Volunteers held them to just 17 attempts from 3-point range. However, Kansas shot 58.1 percent from inside the arc.
In its SEC opener, Tennessee showed it can punish teams that decide to attack from the perimeter and not the paint and are not efficient: a 96-50 blowout Saturday against Georgia was helped by the Bulldogs, who entered the game shooting 34 percent from three, making just 1-of-20 attempts in the game.
"It has to be more than just 3s," Martin said. "You've got to be able to make plays around the rim, because they're physical, athletic, they're strong. It won't be easy, but you have to be able to make plays at the rim."
Doing so was one reason the Tigers pulled away from Illinois late in a 16-point win last month. Tilmon and Javon Pickett were both very efficient from close-range with Tilmon working his post moves and Pickett slashing for dump-off passes or put-backs from offensive rebounds.
It's a fine line to toe for Missouri, one of the country's top 25 3-point shooting teams and best in the SEC at 39.3 percent. The question is whether or not the team has enough offensive firepower to hang with the SEC's best. The Tigers need the 3-point shot to fall, but unless half of them are going in, abandoning interior scoring is something teams do against this Tennessee squad at their own peril.
Against their last four opponents — Oral Roberts, Xavier, Illinois and Morehead State — the Tigers have scored 80, 71, 79 and 75, respectively, with possessions in the 68-to-71 range.
Missouri averages 69 points per game to the Vols' 86, and even though one of the features of conference play is reduced scoring, Missouri's comfort zone through early December had been scoring in the mid-60s and playing sound enough defense to make it work, the exceptions being Iowa State and Kansas State.
"That's what makes it fun," Tilmon said of playing Tennessee, "because they like to move a lot, run up and down the court. We can play that pace, too, we can play either slow pace or fast pace. We're going to worry about us."