In a 2018-19 Missouri men’s basketball season without a surplus of high points, a convincing win over Xavier last December stood out as one of the most positive moments.
Along with a Braggin’ Rights win over Illinois and an overtime victory against Central Florida, the 71-56 triumph over the Musketeers gave the Tigers confidence heading into their Southeastern Conference schedule.
Although Missouri didn’t take advantage in SEC play because of injuries, inexperience and the depth of the league, this year’s matchup in Cincinnati against Xavier could lift MU in a similar fashion.
The Tigers face the No. 21 Musketeers on Tuesday with a 6 p.m. tipoff at the Cintas Center.
While the teams may be familiar with each other, as the programs meet for the fifth time in six years, no Tiger is relying on past results — including last year’s win — to fuel them now.
“I think it gives me confidence knowing who I’m going to war with more than the game we played last year,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “It's a different thing and a different environment. ... I’m more excited about the guys I’m going to battle with than what took place last season.”
Both teams enter the matchup 2-0 so far this year, with Missouri defeating Incarnate Word and Northern Kentucky last week as Xavier beat Jacksonville and Siena. Against Siena, Musketeers forward Naji Marshall netted 20 points and dished out seven assists. Xavier junior Tyrique Jones is also averaging 18.5 points and more than eight rebounds per game this season while shooting 75% from the floor.
Martin noted that Xavier returns 49 points per game from last season’s team, including four of its five starters.
Another stat that impressed Missouri guard Dru Smith is that the Musketeers get an offensive rebound on 36% of their missed shots.
“They’re long, athletic, they score the ball and do different things offensively to put you in a lot of difficult situations where you have to make decisions,” Martin said about Xavier.
The Musketeers are led by second-year head coach Travis Steele, who worked under previous Xavier head coach Chris Mack before being promoted when Mack took the head coaching job at Louisville.
Martin said this year’s Xavier team is similar to ones coached by Mack, as he led the Musketeers to the NCAA Tournament in eight of his nine seasons in charge.
The Tigers will be playing in Cincinnati for the first time with Steele leading Xavier.
Tuesday is one of their three true nonconference road games this season.
“Road wins mean a lot,” Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon said. “When we’re on the road, it's harder than being at home, so the atmosphere is way different. You've just got to be ready and calm. ... You can’t let the crowd distract you, you can’t let the refs get into what you’re doing. You've just got to play your game.”
“I would imagine not many teams have more than two, so you're playing three true road games, that’s big," Martin said of the Tigers' nonconference slate. "You take them one at a time.”
Missouri’s two other true road nonconference games are against Temple in December and at West Virginia in late January. Neither of those contests are on the Tigers’ mind right now, though.
The lasting effect of the showdown against the Musketeers will loom large for Missouri this season.
“The best strive in moments of adverse situations, when you’re on the road, so to speak, and they want to be in those environments,” Martin said. “I think it brings out the best in you. I enjoy playing on the road, just having an opportunity to beat an opponent and silence the crowd.”