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Missouri found some identity in the Virgin Islands

For a weekend that began with a disastrous near-loss, the Tigers were able to come away with clearer expectations for the season.

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

As fans of college basketball, there’s almost no phrase we like hearing less than, “transition year.”

It is truly the worst kind of year. Who wants to be in the middle phase of success — just separated from the heart-rending delights of the NCAA Tournament, but knowing it will likely be another year before we can taste them again? It’s nice-sounding basketball jargon that sounds a lot like, “mediocrity,” and honestly, I’d be OK never hearing it again.

Don’t say it

Don’t say it

Don’t say it

Don’t say it

Don’t say it

It’s been hard to get a grip on this Missouri team early on in what should be a transition year. Of course, only having two games — a blood donor at home and a Top 30 team on the road — won’t produce much of a workable sample size. Luckily, the early season tournaments always provide a few more answers.

This year, Missouri traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam. And for a weekend that started with a near-disastrous game against Kennesaw State, Missouri came away pretty nicely, securing a second place finish to Kansas State, who returned a lot of production from last year’s Elite Eight squad.

With a full week before the team’s next game, let’s take a look at what the tournament can teach us about this year’s Tigers.

Jordan Geist is the team’s unquestioned leader

With the loss of Jontay Porter, this team needed a leader on and off the court to step up and will them to some wins. We know Kevin Puryear will fill that role every now and then, but it appears Jordan Geist will be the main man in the 2018-2019 season.

Geist has had an unconventional start to the year. His effective field goal and true shooting percentages have taken a dive while his usage rate has risen from 16 to 25 percent since last season. His offensive rating, a pretty solid 111.8 last year, has fallen to 101.5 despite averaging nearly 13 points a game. However, he has also cut his turnover rate to 16 percent — it was 21.4 last year — with a 19 percent assist rate to go with it. And his defensive rating is down to 100.9, the lowest of his career.

He’s done all of this with a back injury that has kept him out of practice, but not stopped him from producing two straight 20+ point games against high major opponents. Without him, Missouri likely doesn’t even make the Paradise Jam championship. If Geist can find the decent jumper he developed last year, it could be a fun senior season for the oft-maligned guard.

Has Jeremiah Tilmon developed?

Before the season, a lot of talk came out of the Missouri locker room — including some from the man himself — that Jeremiah Tilmon had been working on the mental parts of his game to avoid foul troubles that plagued his freshman year. Things seemed to be on track early, with Tilmon only getting seven fouls in his first three games, including only one to go along with 12 points and 9 rebounds against Kennesaw State.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

However, the Tigers had to go the rest of the tournament mostly without their star big, who only averaged 18.5 minutes against Oregon State and Kansas State. He fouled out in both games, only contributing 8 points and 6 rebounds in the process.

Last week, Matt looked at how Tilmon’s developing role will impact Missouri’s offense this year. But all those new wrinkles will be moot if Tilmon can’t stay on the floor. It’s probably too early to determine that he hasn’t moved past his foul problems, but the Paradise jam wasn’t encouraging in that regard either.

The rotation is coming together

Cuonzo Martin said before the season he wants to run with a rotation of nine players. While he deployed most of the roster at one point or another in the Virgin Islands, the championship game against Kansas State offered the clearest look at Martin’s preferred rotation.

Mizzou player minutes vs. Kansas State (Nov 19, 2018)

It’s not a perfect match, but those first eight names (Geist through Watson) have seen the most consistent run with Mitchell Smith also rounding out the top nine. Martin likely has a few more games before his rotation needs to be tightly set, but it looks like we have a clear idea of who will be on the court this season.

Side note: I think it’s a little curious Martin put Guess in for only 7 minutes against Kansas State. I’ve been of the opinion that I’d like to see Guess get a red shirt year in, and it’d be odd to see that burned just so Guess could get energy minutes in a few games. However, Martin clearly thinks he can be of some value on the court this year, so who am I to say otherwise?

The freshmen are playing like freshmen

This roster provides is the perfect opportunity for Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson to get lots of playing time — they’re averaging 21, 19 and 17 minutes, respectively.

So far, they’ve been... mostly OK? Pinson probably had the best tournament of the three, bolstered by his 12-point performance against Kansas State in the championship game. He looks like he could’ve used a summer in the college weight room, but he’s also more than capable of handling himself against high major competition. Pickett continues to get starter’s minutes, but there’s still a lot of room for growth — he shot 5-16 from the field this weekend. And Torrence Watson is still struggling to find his offensive rhythm, going 2-13 from the field with no free throw attempts in the tournament’s three games.

So all of that to say the freshmen are, well, playing like freshmen. We’ve seen flashes of what they can do and the future is bright, but it might take a while before consistency becomes the norm with these three.

An overall successful weekend

There’s a lot more we could dig into regarding the Paradise Jam, but it’s hard to argue it was anything but an encouraging weekend for the program and its fans. Missouri proved it can overcome adversity, beat a legitimate Power Five opponent and, at the very least, not get blown away by an elite team. We didn’t know much about who Missouri was — or who they could be — before they flew to the Virgin Islands. Now? We have a much clearer picture.

There are obvious problems, and they’re not going to go away because Mizzou had a good weekend. But now Cuonzo Martin can operate with a better picture of what exactly he has on the roster and how it matches up with the full scope of NCAA teams.

Fans should also be able to properly set expectations at this point. So far, Missouri has played the number 14, 30, 75, 290 and 331 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings — they’re at 84 themselves. We know they can beat teams in the 70s range on a neutral court. And, if they catch one of those better teams at home, maybe they can swing an upset.

Making a second straight NCAA Tournament was always going to be a tough ask for a transitional team without its potential NBA Lottery pick. But maybe the Paradise Jam showed us how Missouri can make this season intriguing while Cuonzo Martin continues to build a foundation for the future.