Tennessee tips off SEC play Wednesday night with a road trip to Columbia, Missouri to take on Cuonzo Martin’s 12th ranked Tigers.
The road game is Tennessee’s first, after winning six straight at the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena to open the season
"It's something I don't think is ideal,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of the Vols’ first road game coming in SEC play. “Which is why it was hard when we lost the game at Notre Dame and those neutral site games that would be different. This is not the way it usually is, it's an unusual year as we all know. I'm sure it's happened to some other teams, I don't know because I haven't looked around at everybody's schedule nationally. It's not the ideal thing we would have liked to had with the way our preseason went, but with that said, it is here and we have to be ready to go play against a very good Missouri basketball team."
Missouri has been the surprise of the SEC in the pre conference slate. After the media picked the Tigers to finish 10th in the SEC, Missouri has come out firing, winning its first six games including wins over top 25 teams, Oregon and Illinois.
As it usually does for Cuonzo Martin coached teams, everything starts on defense for Missouri. The Tigers are giving up 65.3 points per game. The mark is good for just eighth in the SEC but is only 1.3 points per game behind the league’s fifth best defense.
While the blueprint is the same for Martin, this Tigers team plays faster than nearly any of his other teams, ranking ninth in the SEC in pace factor.
"They're really good defensively,” Barnes said. “They're a heavy gap team that does a great job of swarming in and wanting to break the ball loose and get out in transition. They're playing at a much faster pace than they have probably since we've gone up against them with Cuonzo being there with them. So they're different, but I think they're a very well-coached team on both sides, I think they both know exactly how they want to play and who they want to play through. They know who they are, and they play to that."
Missouri’s offense has scored 80 or more points in three of its six games this season including in wins over Oregon and Illinois.
Like Tennessee, Missouri is balanced on the offensive end of the court with five players averaging between eight and 14 points per game.
The Tigers have veteran guard play and that starts with points and assists leader Xavier Pinson. The junior guard is averaging 14.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. Pinson is an attacking guard that struggles from three-point range, shooting just 32% on his career from deep.
Pacing closely behind Pinson and senior guards Mark Smith (13.8 points per games) and Dru Smith (13.2 points per game). Mark Smith is Missouri’s best three-point shooter, making 43.8% of his 32 attempts this season. Dru Smith is another good facilitator, dishing out three assists to 1.7 turnovers per game.
While he averages just 8.2 points per game, no one is more important to Missouri than power forward Jeremiah Tilmon. Tilmon is Missouri’s rock down low, grabbing 7.8 rebounds per game while providing great defense and 56% shooting from the field.
Tilmon’s biggest weakness is his free throw shooting, where he’s a ghastly 13-of-28 free throws this season.
Tilmon missed last season’s game against Tennessee as the Vols earned their first SEC win of the season, 69-59.
"I think it helps a lot, and If I'm not mistaken last year when we went up there it was the first game he missed and I don't believe he missed one prior to that,” Barnes said of playing Missouri without Tilmon last season. “So, they were learning obviously to play without him, but he's a talent and they have done a nice job getting him to understand he's gotten better and that's a compliment to himself and his coaches."
Barnes is 4-2 against Missouri in his tenure at Tennessee while Martin is 1-3 against the team he spent three years coaching, since returning to the SEC.
Tip off from Mizzou Arena is set for 9 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on the SEC Network.