The No. 14 Missouri Tigers will look to sustain their national ranking when they host the Bradley Braves on Tuesday night in Columbia.
The Tigers (5-0) have reached the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2014 but are trying to maintain a business-as-usual approach during this unusual season.
“Anything can happen,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “You go into league play. You lose a key guy, injuries. There’s so much that goes into it. You’ve just got to make sure you’re as healthy as possible. Do the right things. Prepare to win basketball games and just stand together.”
The Tigers have dealt with several COVID-19 scheduling complications this season, including the cancellation of a home game against Prairie View A&M last Friday night. They have not played since they upset Illinois 81-78 on Dec. 12.
In that game, the Tigers survived a late push by the Fighting Illini to secure the victory.
“That’s where the growth shows in our team,” Missouri guard Xavier Pinson said. “Once that starts to happen, we all just get even hungrier. We all just try to lock in and focus even more.”
The Braves (6-2) are coming off of a last-minute, 69-68 victory over Miami (Ohio) at home Saturday.
“It was back and forth,” Braves coach Brian Wardle told reporters after the game. “We had some great looks at key times and just couldn’t make one. They hit some really big shots at big times, and we just couldn’t do it until the end of the game. We chipped away, chipped away, and executed in the last four minutes.”
Bradley’s only losses this season came at Xavier (by a 51-50 score) and at home against South Dakota State (88-84).
The Braves, who have won the past two Missouri Valley Conference tournaments, pride themselves on playing tenacious defense. They have held six of their eight opponents this season to 62 points or less.
“I like a lot of things we were doing,” Wardle said. “We gotta be smarter. Can’t over-help. Know where our shooters are better. I feel like teams got to make 10 or more threes to beat us.”
The Tigers will challenge the Braves with a guard-driven offense led by Mark Smith (14.8 points per game), Dru Smith (14.6) and Pinson (14.2). Javon Pickett scored 14 points off the bench against Illinois, and starter Kobe Brown added 12 as Missouri exploited its offensive depth.
Bradley also features a balanced attack, with five players averaging 9.4 points per game or more, led by Elijah Childs – who is at 14.6 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Ari Boya, a 7-foot-1 center, gives the Braves presence in the paint. He had 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in just 18 minutes against Miami.
“Ari was really good,” Wardle said. “We probably could have played him more, but we just didn’t feel good about those high ball screens they were running with his man and they were attacking him.”
Boya will match up against 6-10 Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon (7.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and 6-10 Mitchell Smith (5.6 points, 5 rebounds).
The Braves have built a 354-271 rebounding margin this season, but the Tigers also are on the plus side (193-156) in that category.
–Field Level Media