COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri Tigers are on the hunt for revenge tonight in Nashville, Tenn.
The Missouri men's basketball team got the final results of four different games to go their way on the last day of the regular season to secure the No. 10 seed in the SEC Tournament, which came with a first-round bye and an extra day of rest, and set up a third matchup with Texas A&M at 6 p.m. today.
In their other two meetings, the Aggies squeezed out a 66-64 win against the Tigers in Columbia and dominated 68-51 in College Station. Today, the Tigers get a chance to correct their mistakes from the previous two meetings when they face off at Bridgestone Arena against seventh-seeded Texas A&M on SEC Network.
"The past two games they beat us, and so just going back to watch film, seeing what we did wrong, I can say that we're very excited to play," sophomore wing Javon Pickett said Tuesday. "Those mistakes that we were making, we haven't been making those mistakes that often, as of late. Like we say, our team has gotten a lot better, we're bonding a lot better, so we're very excited."
Missouri failed to crack 65 points in six of its first nine conference games, and sat at 2-7 in the SEC after that 68-51 loss on the road to the Aggies. Since that Feb. 4 game, the Tigers have scored fewer than 65 points twice, and won one of those games, at Vanderbilt.
Junior guard Mark Smith pointed to the Feb. 11 game against LSU, a 82-78 loss on the road to the then-SEC leaders, as the turning point in the team's belief in itself. Smith missed seven games, including the tail-end of the offense's worst struggles and the resurgence, with a lower back injury.
"I feel like, early in the season, Dru (Smith) was kind of the only playmaker," Smith said, "and I feel like X (Xavier Pinson) really stepped up to helping him. X and Dru can get into the paint any time they want, it feels like now, and they're really looking for guys, so I feel like that's really the main difference. We're playing a lot faster, too, I feel like when X is always pushing the ball like that, I think we're fun to watch."
Missouri kept things close at home, but in College Station, and even with 12 minutes of Jeremiah Tilmon — who tried to play after sitting out nine games with a stress fracture in his foot, then sat out the next five games — the Tigers were out-rebounded 49-30, and gave up 23 offensive rebounds, nine of which went to freshman power forward Emanuel Miller.
It was the second time all season, and the second time in four games, Missouri gave up 20-plus offensive boards, after allowing West Virginia 21. Those two games were also the only times this season the Tigers were worse than minus-nine on the glass.
Redshirt junior forward Mitchell Smith had five points and 11 rebounds in the game in Columbia, and nine points and 11 rebounds in College Station.
"I think this definitely gives us a chance to redeem ourselves," Smith said. "Guys going in there with a little more grit this time, because we know the rebound game is very important. And I feel like we've just got to go out there at make a statement, really. Guys are really locked in right now, coaches are locked in, so this game could really be big for us."
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It would be all but impossible for Missouri to make the NCAA Tournament without first winning the SEC Tournament title. The path runs through No. 2 seed Auburn if the Tigers can beat A&M, then likely through either No. 3 LSU or No. 6 South Carolina in Saturday's semifinals before the winner of the top half of the bracket, likely top-seeded Kentucky, in Sunday's championship.
A few wins could put Missouri above .500 and in position for a potential NIT bid, but the Tigers have only advanced as far as the quarterfinal round in 2013 and 2014.
"You always want to play in postseason tournaments, but you earn that through the course of a season, not a weekend" Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. "You can get lucky on a weekend or a four- or five-day tournament, but that's why you play the season from start to finish, so it doesn't turn out the way you want it to, you had ample time up front to get it done."
Under first-year head coach Buzz Williams, the Aggies use three-quarter court pressure to slow teams down in transition and collapse on drivers in the lane to block shots or take charges.
As a result, Texas A&M's opponents shoot 50.3 percent of their shots from 3-point range, the highest rate in the country and well above the D-I average of 37.5 percent, according to Ken Pomeroy. But opponents are shooting 32.7 percent on 3s, below the national average of 33.3 percent this season.
Missouri played into this both times against the Aggies, shooting 22 2s and 27 3s in the road blowout and 15 2s to 35 3s in Columbia. The Tigers were 16-of-62 (25.8 percent) on 3s in the two previous games this year.
"We've talked about it, and we've looked at our stats and their stats from the first two games," Dru Smith said. "They killed us on the glass, especially in the (second) game we played, and we shot a lot of 3s. And credit to them, I mean, I wouldn't say that they were bad shots, but we took a lot more than we usually do, so I think staying aggressive, staying within ourselves, is definitely something we've been focusing on."