It might take patience, but the long-term jigsaw for Missouri achieving its lofty goals appears at least one step closer after Saturday.


The result itself against Mississippi State wasn’t positive, as the Bulldogs defeated the Tigers 67-63 in front of over 10,000 people at Mizzou Arena.


Missouri’s NCAA Tournament dreams for this season have appeared out of reach for a while now, especially after losing six out of seven games from mid-January to early February.


The game that started that gloomy streak was the 72-45 road loss in Starkville to Mississippi State.


Saturday’s close call was a sign of improvement for the Tigers, even if the chances of getting to The Big Dance, or any postseason tournament at this point, are slipping away.


The attention of the Tigers’ potential has definitely made its way outside the Show-Me State. Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said he thinks MU will be an NCAA Tournament team next season because of the current talent on the roster.


"I think now is now. Now you still have games to play, you got to get beat in the conference tournament," Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "... Tomorrow, we’ll deal with that when it presents itself. I think we have enough now. We just got to find a way to incorporate the guys in there and continue to play the guys that have been successful."


MU doesn’t have to go too far back in its future to find its last NCAA Tournament appearance, as it played among the last 64 teams in Division I in 2018, Martin’s first year in Columbia.


Last season, injury problems led the Tigers to only 15 wins. MU sits at 14-15 overall and 6-10 in Southeastern Conference play after falling to the Bulldogs with two regular-season games left.


Unless a run at the SEC Tournament in Nashville in about 10 days is in the works, the 2019-2020 season as a whole won’t be seen as progress for the Tigers.


Missouri has turned heads since its Feb. 8 win over Arkansas. That started a stretch of four wins in seven tries with two defeats coming by four over that time.


That stretch included the emergence of Xavier Pinson as the team’s primary ball-handler and moved Dru Smith to an off-ball role where his methodical contrast to Pinson’s speed has thrown a few teams off-rhythm.


Pinson scored a game-high 20 points, with Smith right behind with 19.


"I think they’re growing. They’re so young," Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said of Missouri. "Pinson is a sophomore. He’s incredible. He’s so hard to guard ... Dru Smith from 3, I thought he was incredible tonight. Dru Smith is from Indiana, he started learning how to pivot and jump stop when he was 3 or 4 years old ... how he gets into the lane and is able to get you off balance when he doesn’t have a clean look. He’s just so smart and so fundamentally sound. God, is he good."


As most teams head into March losing depth because of injuries, Missouri is adding back to the fold Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith, two opening-game starters for the Tigers.


Tilmon had missed 14 of Missouri’s last 17 games prior to Saturday and Mark Smith returned to the lineup on Wednesday against Vanderbilt after spending nearly a month on the bench with lower-back discomfort.


Tilmon scored seven points and committed no fouls in 21 minutes, while Smith was held scoreless in 13 minutes.


Martin said Smith just didn’t feel right to him, but Tilmon showed a few positive things.


"I thought (Jeremiah) was solid," Martin said. "When you’re out that long and you don’t have practice reps under your belt, it’s not an easy thing, especially in league play ... He’s in the trenches going against physical big guys that are tough enough, big enough, strong enough."


When fully healthy, no player on Missouri may add more by his presence than Tilmon, who helped Missouri out-rebound the larger Mississippi State by a 36-30 margin.


"It helps a lot," Missouri junior Mitchell Smith said of adding Tilmon back into the mix. "Tilly brings a lot to the table just from being out there. He’s a big guy, so teams really have to focus in on him. You got to block him out, so that opens up spaces for other guys to crash the boards, definitely for me.


"Just having Tilly out there, gives other guys on the court confidence and we just play good together when he’s out there."


The last time Missouri was at full strength was for the Braggin’ Rights game, when MU defeated an NCAA Tournament-bound Illinois squad.


With only two regular-season games left, Missouri still has a few opportunities to not only build for the future, but put more pieces together of the puzzle that represents achieving their lofty goals.


"I wouldn’t want to play them in the SEC Tournament, that I can promise you," Howland said of Missouri.


eblum@columbiatribune.com


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