Over the past decade, a debate has been... not necessarily raging, but at the very least brought up among the legions of Mizzou fans spread across the internet.
Is Mizzou a basketball or a football school?
Traditionally, the former is the clear answer. The program had a sustained run of regular and postseason success during Norm Stewart’s tenure even if the ever elusive Final Four berth eluded them throughout. And while Stewart was a perennial conference and tournament contender, the football program enjoyed marginal success at best — the program went to nine bowl games from 1970-2000, winning five.
The arrival of Gary Pinkel changed things. During the time Pinkel was the head coach, the football program went to 10 bowl games, winning six to go along with five divisional championships. Meanwhile, the basketball program started and stalled continuously under the succession of coaches from Quin Snyder to Kim Anderson, appearing in seven NCAA Tournaments and advancing past the first round in just four.
However, if Kem Pomeroy’s latest fan base rankings are any clue, Missouri basketball is seeing a renaissance under Cuonzo Martin.
You’ll have to open that tweet to find the Tigers, but KenPom has Missouri as the 18th ranked fan base in the country, a number that is honestly baffling considering the lack of success the program saw in the years preceding Martin’s hiring.
Pinkel’s tenure may have changed the complexion of Missouri sports, but it sure didn’t change the pecking order. Make no mistake: Missouri is still very much a basketball school.
As we do every year in the weeks prior to the start of the season, we’re going to break down the roster by position group, starting with the point guards all the way down to the men in the block. This week, we’re starting with the back court.
Senior: Jordan Geist
Statistical Profile (2017-2018)
|Effective FG %||53.6|
|True Shooting %||57.7|
Freshman: Xavier Pinson
Unlike last year, there’s a bit more of a proven commodity at starter. Ironically enough, it’s the same guy we all had questions about then. How do you see Jordan Geist handling the role of “starting point guard” for the 18-19 season?
Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: Last season’s home stretch sold me on the idea that Geist could pilot Missouri’s offense. Over the final 10 games of the regular season, he averaged 7.4 points, doled out 3.4 assists and knocked in 42.3 percent of 3-point attempts — all while sporting a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. His advanced metrics also showed that he was one of the SEC’s better distributors in pick-and-rolls, hinting that he could make sound reads and decisions.
We also need to keep in mind that Missouri’s offense isn’t isolation-based. Cuonzo Martin won’t clear out a side of the floor and ask Geist to crack a defense. He needs a lead guard who can execute in high ball-screens, handoffs and knock down spot-up jumpers. If that’s still the job, and Geist has had an offseason to prepare, then I expect we’ll see more of the same from Geist.
Granted, we don’t know how the complexion of the offense changes now that Jontay Porter, a savvy reader of defenses and astute passer, is done for the year. Porter’s absence might expand Geist’s portfolio of duties, and we’ll have to see how that manifests itself on the floor. We also have to keep in mind the possibility that the NCAA grants dispensation to Dru Smith, which might bump Geist off the ball — a place that’s likely a more natural habitat.
Josh Matejka, Editor: The tweets I wish I could retract about Jordan Geist could fill the pages of a (very short) book, but instead I wrote a long appreciation column. Geist’s true shooting and effective field goal percentages took massive leaps last year as he transformed himself into a serviceable shooter. And while his assist and turnover rates aren’t top-notch, he was much better in the latter part of the SEC schedule. If he can continue on that track and improve on his jumper once again, he’ll do more than enough to hold things down in his senior year.
Chris Bohkay, Featured Writer: I guess this really depends on how the Dru Smith waiver goes. Because if Dru gets cleared, that’s going to let Geist move over to his more natural spot in the combo guard role. But if Dru doesn’t get cleared, then Geist goes back to the starting spot as noted in the question. He will do better, only because he’s had a full year in the role, and a full offseason as the starter. My hope (and that of any Mizzou fan) is that the starting role doesn’t have the late game meltdowns (the WVU game) or brain farts (the Florida game) the disappearance (Ole Miss anyone) or the huh (Bragging Rights, though that was collective). A more balanced Geist would be great — the guy we saw for a lot of the SEC season where Mizzou made its run in February.
Jack Parodi, Basketball Analyst: I think Geist steps up in a big way as a leader of this team. While senior Kevin Puryear is the unquestioned vocal leader of this Missouri squad, Geist leads with his play. The senior point guard is an absolute grinder, going 110 percent every second he’s on the floor. If there’s a ball on the ground, he’s diving for it. If the opposing team has a stud backcourt player, he’s in their face all game. That kind of energy is contagious, and I expect Geist to continue that level of hustle game in and game out. I believe Geist will have a solid scoring year as well, as he may have to shoot the ball from deep more this year than in the past. While he’s no Kassius Robertson from three, he’s certainly serviceable from long-range, as he shot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc last year.
Xavier Pinson is about as “pure point guard” as you can get on the spectrum of positions. But he had a bit of a weird summer where he spent a lot of time away from the team. How does that affect the impact he’ll make in his freshman year?
Matt Harris: Pinson’s fate is also hitched to whether Missouri gets a waiver granting immediate eligibility to Evansville transfer Dru Smith. Good news on that front would lead me to slap a redshirt on Pinson, who really needed a summer with Nicodemus Christopher and the MU weight room. Having watched Pinson live, I can safely say he sees play develop a second before they happen, but he has a tendency to push the envelope in transition.
It would also give Missouri a natural progression, with Geist handing the job over to Smith and on to Pinson. Finding stability for that part of the roster is crucial, but more so if Martin is able to score recruiting wins in the form of Josh Christopher, Cam’Ron Fletcher or Caleb Love. Having a lead guard who is not only athletic but possesses a solid grasp on what this offense asks maximizes the havoc a stacked wing rotation can wreak.
Josh Matejka: The time away probably won’t keep Pinson off the floor as much as it will make him less effective when he’s on it. A lot of Pinson’s offensive contributions at this point will come from him getting to the rim and the line. But with his slight frame, defenders should be able to force him away from the rim, creating tougher shots and limiting his free throw opportunities. His athleticism will make up for some of it, but we’ll have to wait and see if he can be crafty enough to find news ways to the hole — or at the very least find his teammates when he’s thrown off course.
Chris Bohkay: A PG has to be comfortable with his teammates; he’s got to know their strengths and weaknesses and has to have an anticipation for where they will be when running the offense. That’s what made what Pressey and Ricardo Ratliffe so great to watch, Pressey almost knew where Ricardo would be before he even made his move. This came from time playing together and practicing once on campus. Pinson not being on campus all summer is going to slow his development, though if we look back to this summer, Coach Mann had the highest of praise for his abilities saying he was as good a player as he’s ever seen in 20 years, so perhaps he’ll surprise us. Either way, Pinson’s a freshman PG and freshman PGs make mistakes — they foul a lot and tend to try to do too much when they have the ball in their hands. So while I’m excited to see what he can do once on the floor, I’m expecting some wow moments and a lot of learning during the season, so he’s hopefully serving as a reliable player come SEC time.
Jack Parodi: It’s difficult finding your groove with a new team. Pinson is new to this squad and will have to adjust quickly to make a nice impact off the bench. With how his game relies heavily on passing and ball-handling, finding that natural chemistry with your teammates is essential to succeed. Luckily, Pinson seems to have a natural ability of finding the open man, but learning all the open holes, cuts, etc. of a completely new offense will be a challenge in itself. I think Pinson will be a solid backup to Geist this season and help lead an efficient Missouri bench
Until we hear a definite answer on Dru and Mark Smith, there’s still a lack of depth at PG. How will Cuonzo Martin counter that hole in the roster?
Matt Harris: We haven’t seen Javon Pickett in well over 18 months, but he showed at Belleville (Ill.) East that he could slither into the lane. While he won’t be asked to do that each possession at point guard, history suggests he’s comfortable with the ball in his hands. We saw last year that Missouri made due when Kassius Robertson, a wing by trade, served as the lead ball-handler: lots of ball screens in the middle of the floor. While Robertson was more apt to hunt for pull-up 3-pointers, perhaps Pickett’s ability as a driver could tilt those plays toward straight pick-and-rolls with Jeremiah Tilmon. If reports prove true that Pickett’s bulked up and shown improvement, I worry less about projections that said he’d have trouble finishing through contact — meaning the threat of him attacking down hill after a Tilmon screen is legitimate. The big question is whether Pickett possesses the ability to make the right read in those situations. Still, it’s an avenue MU could explore.
Josh Matejka: I was very ready to talk about Jontay Porter’s role in bringing the ball up here... but, uh, yeah.
Obviously, the loss of Jontay Porter puts the ball-handling impetus squarely back on the shoulders of the guards as there aren’t any other forwards as versatile as Jontay. Torrence Watson has some experience being a primary guy from his Whitfield days, but he’ll be needed in other areas — is, “I don’t know,” an acceptable answer here?
Chris Bohkay: Is it too obvious to say “recruiting?” With Smith definitely being in the fold next season, and Pinson having a year under his belt, the 2019 - 2020 season seems more set, with the potential of Caleb Love coming in the year after, things look more solid. But the attrition at this position has been tough for Cuonzo. Coming into his second year, I’m sure he was expecting to have Blake Harris this season entrenched at the point, and Phillips as a reliable back up. Mizzou hasn’t had a competent true PG running the floor since Phil left, so this is nothing new for Mizzou fans.
If there’s one thing that Cuonzo has shown, he can adjust to changes on a dime. The fact that Cuonzo got the team that ended the season vs. the group that was on the bench against Iowa State to the NCAA tournament is a testament to his ability as a coach. While the current situation is not ideal, I have faith that Cuonzo and his staff will make it work.
Jack Parodi: Ball movement, ball movement, ball movement. Martin will have to preach that to his team this season. It sounds so simple, yet the hardest thing to do in basketball is moving the ball around with purpose. The pre-Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors won their first title by mastering this, and it’s proved to be the ultimate difference between good and great teams. This’ll be difficult without Jontay Porter — one of the best-passing big men in the country — but passing the ball around will take the load off the Tigers’ lack of a true point guard.