It’s finals week over at Ole Missouri, Fair Missouri, and there’s no basketball until Saturday. Sad! Even sadder, many students will be forced to explain their wrecked GPAs to parents in the next week or two. At least back in high school, they could all wait until report cards went out, giving them a few weeks reprieve before facing those disappointing grades again. But here at Rock M Nation, we’re interested in one thing and one thing only. That’s right: #content. That means no waiting for grades. They’re already here. Time to pay the piper.
With a few days off, it seems appropriate to look back on the first part of the season. Mizzou has already matched its win total from last year, sitting at a solid 8-2. And while it’s not entirely accurate to call the first 10 games of a season the first quarter, 9 isn’t too much of a stretch. Say Mizzou plays 31 regular season games, 3 games at the SEC Tournament, then wins and loses a game in the NCAA tournament. 31 + 3 + 2 = 36. 36/4 = 9. Woo! A+ in math!
So as Cuonzo’s team gets schooled on and off the practice floor this week, let’s take a look back at the first 9 games worth of stats and hand out some first quarter grades.
Point Guards: B-
Let’s start with the bottom. Point guard has obviously been Mizzou’s weakest position, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by us or others covering the team. Mizzou has turned it over 138 times in 9 games, good for 282nd in D-I hoops. Blake Harris, Terrence Phillips and Jordan Geist make up just about 1⁄4 of those. That may not seem like a lot... but then you look and realize those three rank First, Second and Third in Turnover % (33.8, 27.8, and 21.4). Some of those turnovers came at reeeeeeally unfortunate times too. We shan’t speak of the West Virginia game here. At this point, none of the 3 have grabbed hold of the starter’s minutes, though Harris seems to be the de facto starter. Instead, Martin appears to just be riding the hot hand on any given night.
So what do each of them bring right now? Geist, who’s seen by far the most minutes, ranks last of the group in TO% but also ranks last in assist%. He’s far from the worst offensive player, but is the shakiest at the line. So his m.o. seems to be of the “high floor, low ceiling” variety. Alternatively, Blake Harris ranks first in assist% and steal%, but is turning the ball over more than a third of the time. He’s also the least reliable jump shooter, but has shown the best ability to get to the rim. As for Phillips, he’s gotten the least amount of minutes, but seems to be handling the demotion well. He pretty much carried Mizzou against UCF toward the end, and has been a surprisingly effective shooter when he picks his spots. He’s still the most limited defender of the trio, though.
I think the best way forward is an eventual Harris-Geist combo with Phillips getting more minutes off the bench when necessary. Geist has proven better than expected, but at some point he only brings so much against better competition. Terrence also is what he is, but he does offer a mostly steady backup. If Harris can clean up his TO numbers and get to the line a little more, Mizzou should see their guard play stabilize.
Shooting Guards: A-
As we mentioned in the pre-season positional breakdowns, Mizzou’s diversity was going to allow them to play with a lot of different lineups, most of which involved forwards and wings handling a variety of assignments. The loss of Michael Porter, Jr., has dampened that diversity to a degree, and after a brief opening period, we’ve seen Kassius Robertson settle in as the team’s main shooting guard and biggest offensive threat. So far, Kassius has been exactly the player he was advertised to be: a deadly sharpshooter who can turn the tide of the game in a minute. And when I say “exactly the player” I mean it literally. So far Kassius is running with his career averages in minutes and rebounds. He’s a tick down on his point totals, but is shooting his best 3-point percentage (44%) and highest 3-point attempted rate (66.3%) of his career. He knows his role and is doing it well.
If I have any concerns, it would be that his TO% and 2P% (2-point field goal percentage) are at career worsts. Both of them probably have to do with adjusting roles on a new team. Whereas Robertson was the biggest scoring threat at Canisius, his role at Mizzou is more one-dimensional. I’d still like to see him get a little more creative with the ball in his hands... but then again he’s been more turnover prone than ever. He started the year as Mizzou’s main point guard and was quickly switched back after a few rough shooting nights. He was clearly not fitting as the primary ball-handler.
Still, there isn’t too much to complain about. As Bill pointed out in the Miami (Ohio) Study Hall, Robertson turned the ball over 5 times and still managed to be in the Trifecta because of his offensive prowess. It’d be nice to see him raise that 2P% and be a little less casual with the ball. Overall, though, Robertson has been a godsend.
I waffled between a B+ and an A- here, mostly because the wing position is so vaguely defined on this team. Jordan Barnett is likely the only true wing, but Robertson and VanLeer have both filled that roll at times. Still Barnett is the focus here, as he’s putting in a 76.4 MP% and is second on the team in scoring behind Robertson, who occupies most of the minutes in the shooting guard position. Barnett is slightly down in total rebound percentage (TRB%) from last year, but that’s likely due to the fact Mizzou has more guys capable of cleaning up the boards now - he’s still the team’s second leading rebounder to this point. He’s up a tick on his eFG% (52.3) and TS% (57.7). And aside from the pure numbers, he’s been a go-to scoring option, iced Mizzou’s first road win in 3 years at the line and has provided us with a series of highlight reel dunks.
Still, Barnett fails to reach the ‘A’ range because he’s still too reliant on the 3. He 3-point attempted rate is at 57%, the highest number he’s posted in his college career (disregarding his 24-minute sophomore season in Austin.) And while his shooting numbers are pretty good, he’s only hitting slightly under 33%. That’s not bad for him, but many of us here at RMN would like to see him use his athleticism more and get to the free throw line, where he’s Mizzou’s best performer (89%). He’s been one of Mizzou’s most consistent players since his disappearing act from Utah through Long Beach State. Now the question is if he can tap into that last bit of potential and make himself an even more potent threat than he’s already been.
Combo Forwards: B+
Another position directly affected by the loss of Michael Porter, Jr., the combo forwards have largely consisted of Kevin Puryear and a dash of Jontay Porter with Jeremiah Tilmon on the floor. But for the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with what Puryear has done here. He’s actually running a hair under his MP% from last season (74% to 68%), he’s shooting a career low FGa% (7.7%) and is down in usage by about 3 percentage points. This tracks with what a lot of people thought about his role on this newly talented team. How would Puryear transition from being the first option to the 3rd, 4th or maybe even 5th and 6th? Some of it has to do with MPJr’s untimely exit, but so far, Puryear has been more than up to the challenge.
Surprisingly - or perhaps not so for those who advocated the change a while ago - Puryear’s change to a more inside-out game has been much to his benefit. His minutes may be dropping, but he’s scoring right along with his career clip while shooting a better eFG% and TS%, hitting 3’s at an eye-popping (if slow) rate and rebounding a hair better than he has for the rest of his time at Mizzou. He’s turning the ball over far too often, but is also doubling his best steal% numbers. In the Kim Anderson era, Puryear was forced onto the block against bigger, more athletic forwards, putting him at a severe disadvantage. Now, either those forwards are forced to play him outside or his defenders are smaller, giving the physical edge that wasn’t there before. And much like Barnett, he’s benefitting from almost never seeing the other team’s best defender.
Most importantly, though, I’ve been impressed how the easily the change in surroundings has come for Puryear. There were murmurs over the offseason that Puryear wasn’t happy with the prospect of playing less, or even giving up his starting spot. Clearly, circumstances dictated he do neither to an extreme degree. But Puryear has set an admirable example of leadership and steadiness each and every night. He’s the old hat on campus now, and it’s one he wears well.
Post Players: B
B feels a little harsh considering Jontay Porter has been the team’s all-around best player, Jeremiah Tilmon has put up some monstrous efforts and Reed Nikko has been a steady backup. Porter leads the team in rebounds and blocks, is dishing out more assists than anyone but the guards and is averaging 8.3 PPG. He’s also made a massive impact on the team outside of traditional stats. One example: when he jumped out of bounds to save a loose ball at UCF, tossing it out to CVL, who gave a touch-pass to Kevin Puryear on a wide open 3. It’s impossible to not be impressed with Porter’s effort so far.
Meanwhile, Tilmon hasn’t been too shabby himself. He’s proven an effective scorer and rebounder down low, flashing a much more polished offensive game than anyone expected. He’s been slightly underwhelming as a defender, but really only because of foul issues tampering his aggressiveness. He’s a monster when he wants to be and has clearly benefited from time with this staff. And Nikko, while only getting about 10 minutes a game, has been a steady defensive presence when the other two need air.
The big issue with the two frosh has been consistency. Tilmon opened up with a massive 14 point, 7 rebound effort against Iowa State, fooling us into believing his problems with fouls were overblown. He then proceeded to foul out two games in a row and collect 4 on the next tilt. That led to a little bit of inconsistency on the production end as he tried to harness his effort on the floor. Jontay has been much more stable, especially in Orlando where he took home All-Tournament Team honors. He went quiet for two games, only putting up 2 points, though he still racked up 5 and 8 rebounds, respectively.
It’s pretty obvious both Jontay and Jeremiah are ready to compete at a high level as freshman. When the two are playing at their best, there might not be a more purely talented front court duo in the SEC. All they have to do now is put that effort and production forward on a nightly basis. If their growth thus far is any indication, it won’t be long.
This seems like the easiest call to make, doesn’t it? Maybe its because we’re used to such a low bar, but Cuonzo Martin has been just about everything Mizzou fans could have hoped. The old and the fresh faces have meshed well and are playing better than we could have expected given the absence of a future NBA lottery pick. Other than the Utah debacle, the team has played well away from Columbia. And Cuonzo has been vocal - particularly after Miami (Ohio) - about wanting more from his players.
If there have been any knocks against Cuonzo thus far, they’d probably be related to the slow pace of play on offense. But still, one could reasonably chalk that up due to the lack of consistent point guard play. And even while the offense still struggles to get in sync, the defense and rebounding have been about as good as advertised. Coach Martin has taken the roster, injected it with talent and completed a transformation from a team that does nothing well to a team that does many things well.
There’s a lot of season left. But Martin has given this team confidence, swagger, clearly defined roles and high expectations. So far, he’s managed to meet them.