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Missouri lacks a clear fallback plan after missing on E.J. Liddell

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What do you do when 16 months of legwork doesn’t bare fruit? You go back to the drawing board. For Cuonzo Martin and his staff, sketching out those plans could take some time.

FloSports: FloHoops EYBL Session 2 Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

If you placed your cursor on this link, clicked and hoped for a shred of optimism after E.J. Liddell’s commitment to Ohio State, what follows will offer the payoff you’re seeking.

With the Belleville (Ill.) West combo forward off the market, the pressing question becomes where the Tigers turn next, especially now that we’ve entered a period of the recruiting calendar where highly-touted prospects are quickly coming off the board.

The task of replacing Jontay Porter, who is likely bound for the NBA after this season, already posed a challenge to coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff. Now, seeing a natural replacement and the Tigers’ chief recruiting priority go elsewhere only ratchets up the degree of difficulty. All that’s left now is a hard reset.

Over the past several weeks, Sam Snelling and I have repeated ad nauseam that a single recruiting battle doesn’t define a program. Without a doubt, there’s a deep welt after 16 months of leg work didn’t pan out, but there is still time for Mizzou to formulate a contingency plan and two periods — the mid-year transfer window and the spring signing period — where it can blunt the ripple effects.

And, as you’ll see, patience is probably warranted.

Does Missouri have any insurance?

When Tray Jackson committed to Minnesota on Sept. 10, Missouri saw its best backup option disappear.
Jon Lopez / Nike

Until three weeks ago, MU owned a some coverage with its pursuit of combo forward Tray Jackson.

On Sept. 10, it expired when Jackson committed to Minnesota. Among those who closely track prep talent in Michigan, Jackson was considered to have the highest ceiling — if he could display consistency and mental toughness — of any prospect in his class. Once the grassroots season wrapped up in August, Mizzou slowly positioned itself as a favorite to land Jackson, who set an official visit to Columbia.

Instead, the same weekend Liddell and Mario McKinney Jr. were being feted on a joint official visit, the Gophers were securing the player who represented Martin’s best insurance policy. Once Jackson went off the board, MU loaded all its eggs in the Liddell basket.

A month ago, consolation could be found in the notion that the Tigers could lock down McKinney — mission accomplished — and Jackson to fill looming positional needs.

In hindsight, that coping mechanism failed spectacularly.

Might I suggest, though, some cognitive reframing: If you include transfers Mark Smith and Dru Smith along with McKinney in the 2019 class, the results look better. Finding replacements for Porter and Kevin Puryear are crucial, but MU coaches also sough to shore up ball handling and upgrade overall talent at combo guard — objectives they’ve largely met. Through that lens, the figurative ground they have to scour is limited solely to stretch forwards and bigger wings.

What options does MU have right now?

Khalid Thomas, an elite JUCO product from College of Southern Idaho, committed to Texas Tech on Monday, officially clearing Missouri’s recruiting board of options at combo forward.
College of Southern Idaho

At the moment, the shelves are picked clean.

A little less than an hour after Liddell chose the Buckeyes, Khalid Thomas, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound prospect suiting up for the College of Southern Idaho, committed to Texas Tech — officially leaving Mizzou’s recruiting board vacant at the combo forward spot. Even if Thomas, who picked up an offer from MU in July, had extended his recruitment, the odds were slim that the Tigers could execute a scramble drill to get in the mix.

Over the weekend, Thomas visited Texas Tech, while a trip to Arizona had been on books for the one upcoming. On Sept. 16, he told Adam Zagoria that the Red Raiders, Wildcats, Baylor and Oregon made up the quartet of suitors that would be on his mind moving forward.

Missouri | Combo Forward Targets - 2019

Last Name Height Weight City State Offered Rank Final Cut Committed School
Last Name Height Weight City State Offered Rank Final Cut Committed School
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl 6'8" 220 Roeland Park KS 4/21/17 18 No No NA
E.J. Liddell 6'7" 220 Belleville IL 5/10/17 48 Yes Yes Ohio State
Malik Hall 6'7" 186 Aurora IL 6/21/17 52 No No NA
Keion Brooks 6'8" 180 Fort Wayne IN 9/11/17 21 No No NA
D.J. Jeffries 6'6" 200 Olive Branch MS 9/15/17 47 No No NA
Tray Jackson 6'9" 200 Bellevue MI 6/6/18 82 Yes Yes Minnesota
CJ Walker 6'7" 190 Sanford FL 7/14/18 28 No No NA
Khalid Thomas 6'9" 202 Portland OR 7/16/18 NA No Yes Texas Tech

Obviously, we’re not privy to the actual board, but there aren’t any suspects that jump out after Thomas. That’s where our discussion becomes laden with hypotheticals and gaming out scenarios. In the weeks and months to come, MU’s staff will have four buckets to choose from as they decide how to use a pair of open scholarships:

  • Mid-Year Transfer | The waiver wire, for lack of a better word, opens near the end of the first semester, and maybe a highly-touted prospect is on the hunt for a new home. Since the spring, Missouri’s staff has professed a desire to build through youth. Taking a freshman as the calendar turns over would fit that rationale, and the player in question would be available just in time for SEC play in 2019-2020.
  • Fast-Rising Prep Talent | The presence of Xavier Pinson and Christian Guess indicates the Tigers are willing to add late-blooming talent. HHowever, these prospects also come with questions, whether it’s physical development (Pinson), murky academics (Guess) or raw tools that need substantial sharpening. Exceptions exist, but it’s rare to see a player from this pool make a quick dent. Bear in mind, too, MU’s roster is already laden with these kinds of recruits in Pinson, Guess, K.J. Santos, Javon Pickett and Parker Braun. The need for immediate returns, which Liddell was expected to bring, might rule out this route.
  • Graduate Transfer | Hitting the free agent market in the spring could be the default option. At the very least, the Tigers could add an experienced hand who could provide steady rotational help if the rotation at combo forward still skews toward developmental prospects. The staff can also tout its developmental and use of Kassius Robertson as an example of the impact a high-caliber veteran can make if they join the fold.
  • Traditional Transfer | Stashing a player for a year might not yield immediate returns, but, as noted above, MU showed a willingness to wait when it added the Smiths this spring. And if the staff used its other open scholarship on a mid-year transfer or graduate transfer, the program would balance short-term demands with longer-term stability.
  • JUCO Stopgap | Plucking a two-year player represents another potential middle way, infusing some experience, balancing classes and, ideally, an immediate punch on the roster. So far, Martin and his staff have largely passed on pursuing junior college prospects but it shouldn’t be ruled out entirely.

What course of action should Martin and his consiglieres take?

Quite frankly, your guess is as good as mine. Any plan, though, likely includes taking stock of assets already in the portfolio: Braun, Santos and Mitchell Smith — all of whom could see minutes at the position. Along the way, we can’t predict which player-coach relationships will erode and create the need for a fresh start. We don’t know which coaches will be fired when spring arrives and which of their peers will replace them.

Just take a look at the list of the nation’s top incoming transfers this season, per Bart Torvik.

Top Incoming Transfers - 2018-2019

Rank Year Ht Player New Team Old Team Games ORTG USG
Rank Year Ht Player New Team Old Team Games ORTG USG
1 Jr 6-8 Reid Travis Kentucky Stanford 35 114.3 26
2 So 6-9 Dedric Lawson Kansas Memphis 32 109.9 28.4
3 Jr 6-4 Joe Cremo Villanova Albany 31 120 24
4 Jr 6-1 Tramaine Isabell Saint Louis Drexel 27 111.7 29.5
5 So 6-8 Brandon Clarke Gonzaga San Jose St. 28 114.5 25.1
6 So 6-5 C.J. Bryce North Carolina St. UNC Wilmington 33 112.3 24.3
7 So 6-2 Marcus Evans VCU Rice 33 107.9 29.9
8 Jr 6-3 Matt Mooney Texas Tech South Dakota 31 109.1 29.6
9 Jr 6-9 Ryan Welage Xavier San Jose St. 29 108.8 23.6
10 Sr 5-10 Justin Coleman Arizona Samford 30 111.3 24.7
11 Jr 6-6 Ryan Taylor Northwestern Evansville 25 98.2 31.3
12 So 6-2 Nisre Zouzoua Nevada Bryant 30 106.7 26.6
13 So 6-1 Makai Mason Baylor Yale 29 107.8 26.1
14 Fr 6-2 Mikey Dixon St. John's Quinnipiac 31 113.4 23.7
15 Jr 6-3 Braxton Huggins Fresno St. New Mexico St. 31 117.9 20.5
16 So 6-7 Tevin Mack Alabama Texas 15 109.2 22
17 Jr 6-10 Trey Porter Nevada Old Dominion 32 118.7 25.6
18 Jr 6-4 Geno Crandall Gonzaga North Dakota 30 105.1 26.5
19 So 5-10 Jazz Johnson Nevada Portland 31 103.8 24.3
20 Sr 6-9 Ryan Luther Arizona Pittsburgh 10 107.4 24
barttorvik.com

Eleven of the players on the list, including six of the top 10, were graduate transfers on the move this spring. The one player who is not on the list — South Dakota State’s Mike Daum — was widely presumed to be a likely candidate to find a high-major home for his final season. So who’s to say what options will be available months from now?

Plotting out a reasonable path forward requires the kind of foresight that, in all honesty, we sorely lack in early October. Regardless of what plan the staff concocts, the hope should be prudence outweighs urgency.

Should we drum up any criticism?

Painful as it might be to miss on Liddell, it’s hard to critique the staff for its approach. They offered Jeremiah Robinson-Earl early, but it was always a flight of fancy to think they could outmaneuver Kansas or North Carolina. (Earl’s father, Lester, suited up for Kansas and played for Roy Williams.) They tried to lay a foundation with Malik Hall but to no avail.

If we’ve learned anything, it’s coach Chris Holtmann and his staff, a group that punched above its weight with a small recruiting budget at Butler, are more than making due with Ohio State’s ample resources. Remember, the Buckeyes briefly reeled in Torrence Watson. In July, they extracted point guard D.J. Carton — a top-50 talent and one-time MU target — out of Iowa. Now they’ve plucked Liddell from the Metro East.

The pivot to Jackson during May and June was savvy, and assistant coach Cornell Mann did all he could to work his ties in Michigan. Unfortunately, recruiting is, well, recruiting. As for the rest of the prospects Mizzou offered, the odds of gaining traction were slim.

The staff made Liddell a priority early. The scheme fit was clear. Proximity worked in their favor. The pitch, for all its seeming allure, just didn’t take.

Sometimes, acceptance is the only option.