The vision of what Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin set out to accomplish defensively this season is closer to becoming a reality through the first five games.
Granted, the Tigers' four wins this season, including a 70-52 victory over Morehead State on Wednesday night at Mizzou Arena, have all come against mid-major opposition.
But even in Missouri's lone loss on the road to nationally ranked Xavier by five points in overtime, the Tigers gave up just 51 points in regulation. The Musketeers' output rose to 63 with the extra period, but no team has put more than 56 on the board against Missouri through 40 minutes this season.
The Tigers have held opponents to 63 or fewer points in five consecutive games to start the season for the first time since 1951, when they accomplished that feat in eight straight games.
With two marquee matchups on the horizon in Kansas City next week, the challenges are about to get tougher to keep the current streak intact.
“We can get even better on defense. That's going to be our identity this year," said Missouri guard Mark Smith, who scored a game-high 21 points against Morehead State. "Coach is always preaching that. I think we're going to be a great defensive team. Just keep working, keep plugging away at it.”
Missouri used its strong defensive effort against the Eagles to compensate for shortcomings on the offensive end.
The Tigers committed 17 turnovers on the night, and outside of Smith, they went 1-for-17 from 3-point range.
“I think it's got to be crucial every night," Tigers guard Dru Smith said of the defense. "Coach Martin, he preaches it to us every single day. We know that's what we have to come in and lock in on. Every night, whether shots or falling or not, that’s what has to be there. That’s got to be a constant for us. We know that there’s an emphasis there. We know that if you’re playing hard on the defensive end, then he's OK with a few things going wrong on the offensive end.”
Martin used last year’s Final Four as a talking point with the Tigers about his defensive-minded direction. Last spring, Virginia and Texas Tech, two teams with similar defensive philosophies, defeated Michigan State and Auburn, two programs more known for their offensive skill, to play in the championship game.
With the NCAA 3-point line moved back more than 16 inches this season from last, more chances at defensive stops should come for Missouri.
“Of course it’s early in the season, you're going to have some breakdowns,” Missouri guard Javon Pickett said. “But I feel like we’re playing really good defense right now. As the season goes on, we’re going to progress more. The little mistakes that we’re making, we won't continue to make them."
Missouri’s analysis of what makes a good defensive team goes beyond how many points it gives up per game. An average of 53.8 points given to the opposition is superb, but Martin knows it likely won't stay that low, especially during Southeastern Conference play. The main goal is simply making the opposing team work for anything it gets and limiting opportunities.
Martin soaked up defensive principles like a sponge during his playing days while being coached by Gene Keady at Purdue.
Now leading Missouri, he wants to pass that same message onto all his players. The Tigers played a dozen in the win over Morehead State.
“Like coach Keady always said, ‘You can rest when you get old.’ He always told us that,” Martin said. “... You can play guys, and if you give up points and lack production, depth doesn't mean anything.”