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Xavier Pinson is the overlooked key for the future of Braggin’ Rights

Much has been made about Missouri’s connections to Illinois. But their resident connection to Chicago could loom large in the coming years.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Following Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights victory for Missouri — its first since 2013 — the narrative stream was flowing wide and free for media types on the Tiger sideline. Go ahead and pick your favorite:

  • Cuonzo Martin gets his first Braggin’ Rights victory to lead an underestimated Missouri team into SEC play
  • Former Illini recruit Jeremiah Tilmon gets revenge one year after struggling in his first Braggin’ Rights matchup
  • Mark Smith flips sides and notches his second straight win in the rivalry
  • Javon Pickett, overlooked by Illini and Tiger fans alike, has an MVP performance on a stage where no one thought he could stand out
  • The momentum of St. Louis recruiting could swing to Missouri with players like Pickett, Smith, Tilmon and even Torrence Watson in the Tiger fray

These are all good stories, and they help make Braggin’ Rights a revitalized matchup in terms of on-court quality and off-court hostility. Together, they form a textured atmosphere for one of the more meaningful college basketball games across the country.

However, there’s one narrative — or rather one person — who has been quietly left out of this equation. You’d be hard-pressed to blame anyone for overlooking him. He only played 10 minutes on Saturday and was only recruited by one of the schools.

But you’d also be silly to not recognize that Missouri freshman Xavier Pinson could play a massive role in the near future of Braggin’ Rights, for reasons mentioned above and whispered elsewhere.

When Cuonzo Martin was hired at Missouri, much of Tiger Nation’s immediate concern went to the recruiting trail. The Kim Anderson years were accented by the commitments of solid role players - Keith Shamburger, Russell Woods, even Kevin Puryear - who were asked to do way more than they should for a program competing in a Power 5 conference. The nearby presence of St. Louis was a major priority for fans, and it appears Cuonzo Martin shared that priority: since coming to Columbia, he’s landed several St. Louis area commitments and is in the hunt for several more in the years to come.

However, even a cursory glance at the eastern side of the Braggin’ Rights rivalry reveals a similar conundrum for Brad Underwood and the Fighting Illini: how in the world are they going to break back into Chicago? I’m not going to pretend I know the ins and outs of Chicago recruiting or how that relationship has operated over time. But there’s no denying that a massive fracture happened between U of I and Chicago last year. It would appear that relationship hasn’t thawed at all in the year since.

That may be an overly reductive way of looking at Illinois’ strategy to recruiting Chicago. But what isn’t overly reductive is saying Illinois would be tremendously helped by having a good relationship with the city that churned out prospects like Evan Turner, Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis. Whatever you may think of the recruiting politics, Chicago is a hub of basketball talent and Underwood is in prime position to inject his roster with professional level upgrades every single year.

Xavier Pinson wasn’t a highly recruited guy out of high school. Sure, his high school reel is fun to watch - his game has Missouri fans comparing him to the slick-handling Phil Pressey, but a version that wins dunk contests. But he was also surrounded by players with more shine, even at his own city and school: Ayo Dosunmu, Talen Horton-Tucker and Francis Okoro (who was closer to Champaign than Chicago.) Pinson was listed as the fifth best prospect in Illinois, but only sported offers from a pocket full of Power 5 schools. Viewed as a talented, but raw, prospect, teams like Missouri and Illinois couldn’t afford to take him on with their rebuilding projects.

However, Cuonzo Martin did what Brad Underwood didn’t and scooped Pinson out of Simeon. We shouldn't pretend like he was the first choice, if only for Mizzou fans, as Martin was openly courting Courtney Ramey. But Pinson seemed like a better-than-solid backup plan, a guy who could grow into what Missouri fans were hoping from Blake Harris last year.

Thus far, Pinson has looked much like a freshman point guard would. His 29.3 assist percentage shows his natural vision while his 28.6 turnover percentage shows his immaturity. He’s a wiry, fast-paced guard with a lot of flash in his game and a lot of weight to gain before he reaches his ceiling.

The thing about Pinson that has really stood out, though, isn’t necessarily how much he’s surprised Mizzou fans. It’s how reliable he’s been. After missing some offseason time due to personal matters at home, a lot of us here at Rock M openly wondered how much of an impact he would have right away. As a leaner guard, it was crucial for Pinson to come in and hit the weight room if he were to put in consistent minutes against the big, physical guards of the SEC. The time lost with Nicodemus Christopher seemed like a missed opportunity.

However, Pinson has been steady in his inconsistent playing time - 6, 18 25, 16 and 10 minutes in his last five games. He’s not a volume shooter, but has taken smart shots when he’s open, hitting on about 41 percent of his threes thus far. And while he’s not the offensive catalyst that Jordan Geist is (raise your hand if you heard that sentence coming two years ago), Pinson is no slouch on defense, boasting a 96.5 defensive rating that sits less than a point behind Geist’s.

So no, Pinson hasn’t been a world-beater. But he’s been an above-average contributor, and seems to have earned the coaching staff’s trust in a way Blake Harris never did last year.

Where Pinson factors into the future of Braggin’ Rights is still dependent on how he grows. If he ends up stalling out, things probably won’t change much from where they are now. You can throw this article in the trash.

But let’s say he realizes his potential - if he becomes Missouri’s starting point guard and even the second coming of Flip Pressey so many hope he could be. All of the sudden, Missouri has what Illinois should always have - an inroad to one of the country’s richest recruiting grounds.

So then what happens the next time Illinois and Missouri are going for a recruit out of the Windy City? Would Underwood’s soured relationships factor in? Would Cuonzo Martin be able to point at Pinson and how he took a chance when the Illini wouldn’t even look his way?

It’s all up in the air at this point... but you can see how the seeds have been planted for a story too good to be true - for Tiger fans, that is.