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Two years in a row Cuonzo Martin has to adjust his roster after the loss of his top player

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Previewing the No. 8 team in the SEC, the Missouri Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Mizzou Preview

#8 Missouri Tigers

Last Season: 20-13 (10-8 SEC) No. 40 KenPom

My Prediction: 18-10 (9-9, 8th in SEC)

The Masses Prediction: 10-8 (7th in conference) No. 43 KenPom

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Cuonzo Martin | First Season, 20-13

After Cuonzo Martin arrived on campus, what followed was perhaps the greatest run of events Missouri fans may ever recall. He hired Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant coach, and he brought a pair of five-star sons along. He signed a top-five recruiting class, and after three seasons in the wilderness, everything was looking up in Columbia. Meanwhile, Martin adapted and tailored his offense to match his new weapons, namely Michael Porter Jr.

You know what happened next. Two minutes into the season, Porter Jr. slumped off to the bench, unable to run or jump without pain. Suddenly, best-laid plans were thrown out the window. Mizzou needed to pivot. This season, the Tigers didn’t even make it to their first game before losing their top player when Jontay Porter tore his ACL and MCL in a scrimmage. Two seasons in a row now the Tigers have had to adjust, on the fly, to the loss of their top player and each time a potential lottery pick.

Enter the reason Missouri hired Cuonzo Martin in the first place. He embodies toughness and effort, and he held the Tigers together through a very tough transition, one that ended with a return to the NCAA tournament just one year after winning eight games.

Missouri got what they wanted from Cuonzo Martin in his first year. There are still some areas where Martin can prove himself, but he got the program back in short order.

Now it’s time to see what he can build.

Seat Temp: COOL

sec basketball preview 2018 missouri 10 year look

Outside of the three-year cratering that was Kim Anderson’s tenure, the program at Missouri had largely flatlined after a 30-win season in 2012. Pretty good, but not elite. With Martin’s arrival, the program returned to familiar territory with 20 victories and a low seed in the NCAA tournament — a finish that also coincides nicely with what Martin’s teams have typically produced.

Yet Mizzou’s faithful, and its brass, are hoping is that it serves a launch point for Martin and the program. In short, a return to the stability that was a hallmark of Norm Stewart’s career in the 1980s and early ’90s. You know, a land of protected seeds semi-regular basis and the hope of one day breaking through the Final Four barrier.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Kassius Robertson graduation 33 89.23% 22.38% 21.38% 22.62%
Jordan Barnett graduation 32 82.02% 18.30% 12.88% 15.70%
Michael Porter, Jr. professional 3 3.98% 1.25% 0.62% 1.47%
Cullen VanLeer retirement 31 33.23% 3.04% 4.99% 4.26%
Blake Harris transfer 14 14.66% 2.21% 6.49% 3.46%
Terrence Phillips transfer 20 15.94% 2.08% 5.43% 2.46%
Brett Rau* graduation 11 3.76% 0.42% 0.30% 0.55%
48.56% 49.68% 52.09% 50.52%

Before last season began, I was already drafting a piece fondly placing Michael Porter Jr. firmly in the program’s lore. It got trashed early. I never figured a transfer from Canisius, Kassius Robertson, would end up being the Tigers MVP. After Porter went down, Missouri needed a focal point for its offense, and Robertson was the last man standing. He became of college basketball’s most lethal shooters while playing a heaping pile of minutes. Under tireless legs and shooting 44.3 percent from 3-point range, Robertson buoyed the offense on his best nights and paced the Tigers in scoring for the season.

Not far behind was Jordan Barnett, who packed a scoring punch despite being way lower in his usage. Barnett was the highest rated recruit sitting on the roster from the Kim Anderson era, but he was an ideal fit for Martin’s scheme. A killer from catch and shoot and a phenomenal primary defender, Barnett’s versatility defensively and his high-percentage shooting will be sorely missed.

Blake Harris transferred out with some playing time frustrations, a feeling made worse by not being able to play alongside a friend in Michael Porter Jr. Even now, I’m not quite sure what to say about Porter Jr. Clearly, MU got the short end after a high-stakes gamble to land elite recruits. Despite drama and angst over his recovery, Porter did what he could to come back and maximize Missouri’s postseason run. Even though Porter wasn’t close to full strength, his usage (36 percent) was still sky high. And while his on-court efforts didn’t square with ample hype, Porter did a great job energizing the program and bringing back interest in a hurry.

I also wasn’t quite sure where to put Cullen VanLeer, since he’s still a part of the program but medically retired. I’ll put him in the departed group since he won’t be playing this season for Missouri. VanLeer took a lot of unnecessary heat from the fanbase, but the coaches always appreciated him. It’s good his influence is still felt around the team this season, especially given the number of younger players on the roster.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Jontay Porter SO CF 33 60.74% 13.59% 66.46% 16.05%
Kevin Puryear SR CF 33 62.77% 11.80% 64.83% 7.93%
Jeremiah Tilmon SO POST 33 48.04% 11.25% 63.90% 4.60%
Jordan Geist SR CG 33 64.65% 10.09% 69.44% 17.45%
Reed Nikko JR POST 33 20.15.% 3.21% 66.08% 1.70%
Adam Wolf* JR CF 4 0.83% 0.38% 92.21% 0.19%
Mitchell Smith R-SO CF REDSHIRT
22.70% 24.93% 62.63% 23.94%
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Puryear | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD

This spot was reserved for Jontay Porter. But fate is a cruel mistress and the Tigers most talented and essential player is sitting out the season as he recovers from a severe knee injury. Enter Kevin Puryear.

Puryear was already going to play a crucial role on this team, and that role has now been amplified as he is being asked to step in for Porter, a potential lottery pick heading into the season. Since his freshman season, the Blue Springs native has been one of the SEC’s more reliable players on the offensive end. His defense could be questionable at times, but you could usually count on Puryear to chip in at least 10 points most nights. Last season, Missouri hoped Puryear could help by providing steady shooting from behind the arc. Instead, he shot just 26 percent. His production dipped, but the Tigers can’t afford that to happen again as they’ll be looking to Puryear for leadership and production this season.

Jordan Geist drew the ire of a lot of fans for some early ill-timed turnovers in close losses to West Virginia and Florida, but he got steadier down the stretch. Now, Geist is Mizzou’s only reliable option at returning at guard and will need him to take another step toward becoming a consistent option on offense.

Reed Nikko won’t wow you with athleticism, and the big man can catch a case of stone hands. Still, the junior is a fierce rebounder whose lower body strength is solid, making him difficult to dislodge off spots. It will be interesting to monitor what Mitchell Smith, who sat out last year recovering from an ACL injury, can provide the rotation. Smith offers some athleticism and showed flashes of being a decent spot-up shooter as a freshman — enough that we could see him getting some minutes on the wing this season.

And Jontay Porter? Lost in the hubbub that came with the addition of Michael Porter Jr. was the fact that MU also added a second top-20 recruit to the mix. It was only after MPJ went down that Jontay Porter’s ample gifts and skill were recognized. He is the embodiment of a modern day post player. Most people quickly point out Porter’s ability to consistent stroke a deep 3-pointers, but Porter does so much more — and all over the floor — to impact the game. He put in a full offseason of work with Mizzou’s strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher to transform his body. All these things added up to a season where Porter could have be the most dominant player in the SEC.

Could have, but won’t be. Instead he’ll watch from the sidelines like his brother did last year.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremiah Tilmon | SOPHOMORE | POST

Potential can be a scary word and one often attached to Jeremiah Tilmon. His nimble feet, soft hands, and natural athleticism are uncommon in a 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame. He moves like a cat on the block but often struggled to stay on the floor due to foul trouble. When Tilmon remained on the court, Missouri was so much more dangerous because of Tilmon’s ability around the rim. He was excellent on rolls to the rim and getting out and running the floor, and now he’s spent his offseason working on his mid-range game.

If Tilmon can stay on the floor, he can be one of the best big men in the SEC. The combination of him and Jontay could’ve been so tough to defend. Instead he’ll take much of the interior scoring presence on his own, and his own value will be amplified significantly.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Torrence Watson 6'5 200 ★★★★ 113 WING
Fr Xavier Pinson 6'2 170 ★★★ 248 PG
Fr Javon Pickett 6'4 207 ★★★ 292 WING
Fr Christian Guess 6'5 180 ★★★ - WING
R-So K.J. Santos 6'8 220 CF
So Mark Smith 6'4 220 CG
Jr Dru Smith 6'3 200 PG

Atop the chart is Torrence Watson, a St. Louis native who was Cuonzo Martin’s primary target in the class and joined the fold after a brief commitment to Ohio State. Watson is a solidly built scorer at the wing position and poured in the points for Whitfield, but he shouldn’t need to do a ton of scoring early on. Still, he’s a player with a world of potential. Xavier Pinson is an elite passer of Chicago powerhouse Simeon, but he needs some time to develop physically. While he’s explosive off the floor, tipping the scales at just 170 pounds raises questions about how well he can hold up throughout season — an issue magnified by missing strength and conditioning work over the summer. Javon Pickett is coming off a shoulder injury in his post-grad year, but at Belleville (Ill.) East he carved out a rep as a guy who could get buckets. Christian Guess was a very late addition but brings athleticism and attitude. If he can stick, his ceiling is solid enough to help the program. K.J. Santos took a redshirt year after transferring to Tallahassee (Fla.) Junior College, but he probably translates best as a 3-and-D option on the wing.

Perhaps the two top additions came by way of transfer. The Tigers found an efficient offensive point guard and elite defender in Dru Smith, who transferred in from Evansville. And Mark Smith, a former top-60 player from Edwardsville, left Illinois after finding the fit to be poor with Brad Underwood. Both have applied for waivers to gain immediate eligibility, and Dru Smith’s chances are a little better since his coach was fired at Evansville. But adding either guy would be an obvious boon to the Tigers chances this season.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Dru Smith Xavier Pinson
(2) Combo Guard Jordan Geist Javon Pickett Mark Smith
(3) Wing Torrence Watson K.J. Santos Christian Guess
(4) Combo Forward Kevin Puryear Mitchell Smith Jontay Porter
(5) Post Jeremiah Tilmon Reed Nikko

I made an executive decision. I think Dru Smith might get cleared by the NCAA and slotted him as the starting point guard. If Smith isn’t cleared, the Tigers could go with a bigger lineup, move Geist down to the point, and shift Watson and or Puryear to the wing. Tilmon and Puryear are near locks to start. Then after the top five the rest of the rotation is a tossup. Mizzou isn’t short on long perimeter players, but all of them are young and none stand out as obvious candidates for minutes. What is certain is Martin can mix and match to see who emerges.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 18-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-11

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Central Arkansas 288 W
Nov 9 Road Iowa State 25 L
Nov 16 Neutral Kennesaw State 329 W
Nov 17 Neutral Oregon St/Old Dominon 90/86 W
Nov 19 Neutral TBD - -
Nov 27 Neutral Temple 82 W
Dec 2 Home UCF 70 W
Dec 4 Home UT-Arlington 229 W
Dec 7 Home Oral Roberts 237 W
Dec 18 Home Xavier 55 L
Dec 22 Neutral Illinois 85 W
Dec 29 Home Morehead State 208 W
avg 160.8

Martin has done a nice job the last few seasons putting together manageable non-conference slates. Iowa State should be much improved over last year, with the Cyclones adding a very good recruiting class to join Lindell Wiggington, who turned a corner midway through his freshman season. Traveling to Ames is always tricky, and this team gets to experience Hilton Magic in just its second game.

If MU can notch wins in its first two games at the Paradise Jam the matchup, they’ll likely end up facing Kansas State, a preseason top-15 foe. Beating either Oregon State or Old Dominion certainly gets tougher without Porter in the middle of the lineup. Both Temple and UCF should be decent, and Xavier will always be tough. Plus, Bragging Rights against Illinois stands out after a tough loss last season. This is a schedule where the Tigers should find a way to nine wins before SEC play, and that should put a tournament bid squarely in sight.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 8 Home Tennessee 11 L
Jan 12 Away South Carolina 42 W
Jan 16 Home Alabama 51 W
Jan 19 Away Texas A&M 48 W
Jan 23 Away Arkansas 64 L
Jan 26 Home LSU 50 L
Jan 30 Away Auburn 17 L
Feb 2 Home Vanderbilt 69 W
Feb 5 Away Tennessee 11 L
Feb 9 Home Texas A&M 48 W
Feb 12 Home Arkansas 64 W
Feb 16 Away Ole Miss 94 W
Feb 19 Home Kentucky 7 L
Feb 23 Away Florida 19 L
Feb 26 Away Mississippi St 23 L
Mar 2 Home South Carolina 42 W
Mar 6 Away Georgia 101 W
Mar 9 Home Ole Miss 94 W
avg 47.5

There are better ways to open the SEC slate than a game against Tennessee, but at least it’s at Mizzou Arena. Then, outside of a return trip to Knoxville, the Tigers drew a workable schedule. The four other home-and-homes: Texas A&M, Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina. All of those teams project to finish at the bottom of the SEC standings. The downside is you limit opportunities against to face likely NCAA tournament teams not named Tennessee. However, it’s been a decade or so since the SEC boasted this much depth, with LSU, Vanderbilt and Alabama all likely vying for bids in March. Notching wins against that group could get Missouri to .500 in league play and on the bubble.

OVERVIEW

In some ways, Missouri’s resurrection from the debacle that was the Kim Anderson era came too swiftly. Going from eight wins to reeling in a generational recruit in Porter Jr. led to outlandish expectations in the media and the fanbase. Despite injuries and transfers, Martin instilled his tough-nosed culture and adapted his pro-style offense on the fly. Unfortunately, all the duct tape and string couldn’t hold a lineup of seven scholarship players together once the NCAA tournament arrived and Florida State swiftly dispatched the Tigers.

Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett, Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon were spackle and caulk. They patched over large holes, but the program is still one in need of a traditional rebuild. The process of upgrading talent and adding depth is ongoing. Throughout spring, it appeared Mizzou would settle into a transitional season. Until Jontay Porter, who was projected to go off the board late in the first round of the NBA draft, decided to return for his sophomore season. Hopes grew, until they began to fade again.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Missouri vs Georgia Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

The bulk of this preview was prepped and written before the news of Porter’s injury, so I haven’t adjusted records and expectations in that respect. Losing a player like Jontay Porter absolutely alters expectations and not in a positive way. The talent at the top of the front court with Tilmon and Puryear is enough to stem the overall tide. The backcourt, however, is a blank slate with only Geist returning.

The shallow depth is why MU is hoping a waiver for Dru Smith comes through. Sure, having both Smiths available would be nice, but Dru is far more prepared for the role the Tigers need, which is at point guard. Geist provided a yeoman’s effort there a season ago, and he can be solid there if asked again, but this team needs a true point guard. Or at least some guard depth.

In a lot of ways, the projected 9-9 mark in SEC play is Martin’s baseline. I’m was giving him the benefit of the doubt to will this team to a .500 record, regardless of whether Dru Smith and/or Mark Smith set foot on the floor. If one, or both, are allowed to play the outlook would have gotten a little rosier because both address this roster’s glaring weakness. Things change. Losing Jontay Porter lowers the expectations by a lot.

Even with Porter available, there were too many unknowns for Missouri. Until Martin settles on a guard rotation and Tilmon shows he can stay on the floor, it’s hard to produce an accurate projection. As is, MU is in the lower-middle of the SEC pack. Without one or both Smiths, you could see MU sink in a league whose depth is improving. If you have both Smiths, reaching 9-9 is possible however. Either way, Martin has done a nice job so far of rebuilding the reputation and talent base of the program. He’s stationed the Tigers in a position to take another step forward soon, if not this season.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.