COLUMBIA — The Missouri Tigers flipped a switch midway through Southeastern Conference play last season, moving to a ball-screen heavy offense that resulted in increased scoring, particularly for facilitators Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith.
A weird offseason and a global pandemic does not seem to have prevented the team from picking up where it left off, as Missouri started the 2020-21 season Wednesday night with a 91-64 win against Oral Roberts at Mizzou Arena.
"A good team win," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I thought, energy, I thought we played with good pace, thought we did a great job sharing the ball."
The Tigers entered the season with the goal of playing at a faster pace. Missouri added Hawaii graduate transfer point guard Drew Buggs to give the team another ball-handler, and worked on conditioning and running the floor all offseason. Smith, Pinson and Buggs were aggressive in pushing the ball up the floor, and the Tigers had 22 points in transition in the win.
Missouri's 91 points matched the season-high from a year ago, scored against both Chicago State and Florida, the fourth-most scored by an MU squad under Martin and the most since three games scoring 95-plus points in his first season.
"I feel like that's the pace we kinda want to be at, I still honestly don't think that the pace was there," Pinson said. "Our pace is way faster in practice, but I feel like we're getting there. We're doing a good job, our bigs are running tremendously."
The Tigers registered 74 offensive possessions and scored 1.2 points per possession, after averaging 0.97 points per possession last season. In the second half, just five of the team's 33 attempted field goals were jumpers: every other shot was either a three, a layup or a dunk.
Pinson finished with 17 points, going 7-of-12 from the field, to go along iwth three rebounds, four assists and a steal in 21 minutes. Five turnovers didn't change the fact the Tigers were plus-31 with him on the floor. Dru Smith added 16 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals and Javon Pickett had 11 points off the bench.
The Tigers finished 10-of-25 (40 percent) from deep.
The two teams started a little slow — Missouri was 1-7 from the 3-point line in the first 10 minutes, while Oral Roberts put Missouri in the bonus by the under-12 media timeout — but the Tigers built some distance and took a 42-32 lead into halftime thanks to a Torrence Watson three.
"We didn't play up to our expectations, honestly, but we still looked good, I saw a lot of good things, and we've got a lot of time to get better," Pinson said. "It was such a weird feeling because we were finally back home playing, so we were really just excited to be playing in front of our fans that we did have there."
Mark Smith took over at the start of the second half. He was 4-for-4 from the floor, including three 3s, scoring 11 of his team's first 15 points and finished with a game-high 18 points. He also threw down a dunk in transition off an alley-oop assist from Dru Smith, showing off the recovery he's made since the back injury eight months ago.
"It kinda came out of nowhere during the quarantine time," Dru Smith said of Mark's dunking ability, then added, laughing, "Don't tell him that, though, you know how he is. Don't get him a big head. But that was a nice play."
Mitchell Smith played 11 minutes for Missouri and had three points and two rebounds after battling a non-COVID related illness. Martin said he and his staff weren't sure Smith would play, but he was able to go.
"Mitch was a little under the weather," Martin said. "He's a major piece of what we do, but I was it was good to see him out there on the floor, because we didn't think he would be able to go to night, but he he showed a lot of heart in that."
Freshman center Jordan Wilmore, listed at 7-foot-3 and 235 pounds, played six minutes for the Tigers, scoring a tip-in and finishing with three rebounds. He missed a two-handed dunk at the end of the second half of back iron, for which he'll have a penalty.
"He owes us 25 push-ups," Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. said with a laugh.
Tilmon had eight points and tied a career-high with 12 rebounds on his 22nd birthday, playing 27 minutes with just one foul.
One of Tilmon's main goals this season is to get 10 rebounds each game.
"That's what they should expect from me every night and that's what I should push myself to do every game, as far as the rebounds," Tilmon said. "I shouldn't get less than 10 rebounds a game, not to sound cocky or anything, but that's what my team expect out of me."
Missouri's other newcomer, Ed Chang, did not play as he recovers from a non-COVID related illness and works to get back to game speed.
"Just a little banged up, but he's fine. He's fine," Martin said. "There's no issues. We didn't expect him to play tonight, but I think you'll see him the next time we step on the floor."
When that will be remains somewhat of a question. The Tigers are scheduled to fly to the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut after Thanksgiving for several games in the bubble there. A game against Oregon fell through due to COVID issues with the Ducks, though a game against Boston College has been reportedly set up.
"I think we're scheduled, as we speak, to go to Connecticut," Martin said. "Now, who we're playing is up in the air, but we're still scheduled to be in Connecticut."
Missouri's next game currently on the schedule is Dec. 6 at Wichita State. The Shockers have also paused team activities recently due to COVID issues, and recently fired head coach Gregg Marshall after allegations of abuse.