By Briar Napier
This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.
Something's clicked for Missouri men's basketball over its last couple of games, especially after a dominating 64-48 win against Southern Illinois on Sunday.
It was clear things needed changing after the Tigers' humiliating 68-60 loss to Charleston Southern on Dec. 3 in Columbia, one of the worst losses in Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin's tenure.
So when the Tigers traveled to Philadelphia four days later and beat a strong Temple team 64-54, it reassured Missouri's players that things were going to be OK.
"Temple, we needed that to get out of our head," forward Jeremiah Tilmon said in the Tigers' media availability session Friday. "We were like, walking around ... feeling down on ourselves just a little bit. Once we beat Temple, we knew we could play against anybody."
The trick now was to keep that confidence going into the Tigers' next game against Southern Illinois. And Missouri accomplished that goal, outmatching the Salukis in nearly every way.
Mark Smith had a career-high 23 points with a Mizzou Arena single-game record-tying seven 3s, as the Tigers played one of their most complete performances of the season. The win improves Missouri to 6-4 overall as two games remain until Southeastern Conference play begins.
Smith was a man aflame with the ball in his hands, but he wasn't alone. Missouri as a team shot well (45.5% from the field), defended well (29.4% allowed, 16 turnovers) and, perhaps most importantly, dominated the rebounding margin 37-21 with a 15-4 advantage on the offensive glass.
The Charleston Southern loss had a large impact on the pregame prep Smith and his teammates do before games, Smith said. Those adjustments are why he believes the Tigers have looked much more comfortable in the two games following it.
"After Charleston Southern, I kind of got back to getting up between 500 and 1000 (shots)," Smith said. "The ball has been feeling good coming out of my hand lately, so it's really just the extra work I've been putting in. Especially in warmups the past couple of days and in practice, I've been shooting it pretty well, so I've just been feeling good."
While the players have been adjusting their routines, the Missouri coaching staff has also switched up who's on the floor and when.
Martin went with a starting five last week at Temple that featured the roster's three Smiths (Mark, Mitchell and Dru) plus Tilmon and freshman forward Kobe Brown. That plan worked against the Owls and had similar success when Martin rolled with the same lineup again Sunday.
Mitchell's 6-foot-10 frame obviously helps in terms of establishing a rebounding presence, but it also adds a nice compliment to Tilmon in the post, Martin said. It's a starting five Martin likes and one that could quickly become permanent if results continue to go Missouri's way.
"Mitch does a good job of keeping the thing flowing," Martin said. "He can feel it, he can see what's going on. He knows how to give Jeremiah space in the post, he knows how to screen away and make stuff happen."
Javon Pickett was Missouri's second-leading scorer with 12 points, almost exclusively scoring through finding space with sharp cuts to the basket. He was apart of the Tigers' bench that showed out against the Salukis, as the unit finished with 25 points.
"If we feel like the guy is sleeping (on defense), then we're able to cut backdoor and today we got a few of those," Pickett said. "We were able to get in the lane and knock down those layups (and) those shots. So it was a plus for us."
The always-anticipated Braggin' Rights rivalry game with Illinois awaits next for Missouri. Last season, the Tigers ended the Illini's five-year winning streak with a 79-63 victory, but Illinois this year is currently averaging 81.4 points per game and is two games removed from a win in Champaign over No. 5 Michigan.
Tipoff is scheduled for noon Saturday at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, with the game broadcast on the SEC Network.