COLUMBIA — Missouri's roster has almost completely turned over since the last time the Tigers faced West Virginia.
Maybe it's for the best.
Missouri (9-9, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) will take on the No. 14 Mountaineers (15-3, 4-2 Big 12) at 11 a.m. today in Morgantown, W.Va. in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on ESPN. In their last meeting, the Tigers coughed up a 13-point lead in the final five minutes of the championship game of the 2017 AdvoCare Invitational in an 83-79 loss.
"I remember them being a very good team, a well-coached team, that hasn't changed," senior forward Reed Nikko said Friday. "Only thing I really remember is that we were up at the end of the game and then, you know that's all I really remember. It's not a great memory, but I remember they're a tough-playing team and they were well-coached, and expecting the same thing tomorrow."
Nikko is one of three players still on the team from that 2017 squad, along with Mitchell Smith, who did not play while redshirting, and Jeremiah Tilmon, who will not be available today as he recovers from a stress fracture in his left foot. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said on a Thursday conference call Tilmon is out of his walking boot and is "week-to-week." In Tilmon's absence, the Tigers have had trouble guarding opposing bigs, an issue which could reveal itself again today.
Missouri is back in the Big 12/SEC Challenge for the first time in four years, missing the event in 2017 and 2018 because the rolling, two-year admission to the inter-conference competition was based on the team's dismal 2015 and 16 seasons.
The Tigers are 1-1 all-time in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, beating the Mountaineers 80-71 in 2013 and losing to Oklahoma 82-63 in 2104. The SEC is 1-4-1 since the Challenge was started in 2013, tying in 2017 and winning in 2018.
"I think we've earned our way," Martin said Thursday. "Now we have to do a great job to win a game and not just show up."
West Virginia is third in the Big 12 standings and coming off a 97-59 dismantling of Texas. All three of the Mountaineers' losses have come on the road this season, against St. John's, Kansas and Kansas State, and they are 9-0 at home.
The forward duo of 6-foot-9 Oscar Tshiebwe (11.7 points, 9.5 rebounds per game) and 6-10 Derek Culver (10.7 points, 9.2 rebounds) power West Virginia. Tshiebwe is tied for the conference lead in rebounds per game, and Culver is fourth.
"The challenge is going to be to lock in for 40 minutes," Dru Smith said Friday. "Those two big guys, they're ducking in basically every possession, they're looking to get the ball every possession, so I think our, especially our bigs, but just everybody's gonna have to be locked in and ready knowing that that's where they want to get the ball and that's kind of where they get their money at. So just trying to lock in on that, trying to make sure that we don't give them their first option."
The Tigers and Mountaineers both shoot 30.7 percent from 3-point range, but West Virginia is far less reliant on 3s than Missouri: just one player, Sean McNeil, has attempted more than 50 3s this season for the Mountaineers, who get 22.5 percent of their scoring from deep, according to Ken Pomeroy, one of the lowest marks in the country. The Tigers, by contrast, get a third of their production from 3s, inside the top 150 nationally.
Both teams are in the top-50 of 3-point defense and effective field goal percentage defense, though they use different strategies to achieve that success: West Virginia applies pressure, both in full and half-court situations, while Missouri drops back to play gap defense.
"Like all of (Bob Huggins') teams, they do a great job defending you, they pressure you," Martin said. "They do a good job of pressuring you, of being physical. It's not wild, there's a method to it. I think the best thing, their guards, and he's always had guards that defend, they pressure and do all of that, but I think where they separate you, with both of his big guys, especially the starters, they do a good job of moving their feet, staying with the ball, staying active, active hands, and they're physical. And then on the other side of the ball, I think they're No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big 12 in rebounding. So you have two physical guys that are athletic, that are mobile, and they do a tremendous job of rebounding.
"I think they do a great job as a team, and the key for them is finding ways to keep their bigs off the glass, not allowing them to get easy post touches around the rim, because it puts so much pressure on your defense if those bigs are playing in comfort."
Missouri's path to success against the Mountaineers, especially if 3s aren't falling, should be similar to what it has been the past two games: attack the rim and Culver and Tshiebwe — the better shot blocker of the two — to get West Virginia's best offensive threats in foul trouble while shooting as many free throws as possible, even if the Tigers don't make 54 in a row again.