Welcome to Editorial Bored, a Rock M Nation roundtable getting you through the craziness of the COVID-19 pandemic by taking a birds-eye view of the Missouri men’s basketball program.
Missouri’s 2019-2020 was a disappointment to everyone involved, and has led to some skepticism about the direction of the program. How are you feeling now vs. how you felt at the beginning of the season?
Ryan Herrera, Lead Basketball Beat Writer: I know many of us thought this team could make a run at the NCAA Tournament with the NIT as a safety this season, and we were wrong about that. Injury woes aside, this team was rarely consistent if it was at all, it was terrible on the road (2-10) and it took one of the worst losses any P5 team has taken in recent memory with the loss to Charleston Southern.
Many of the players are coming back and will have another season to gel together, which is usually a good thing. But now that both Mario McKinney Jr. and Tray Jackson — two of the three players from the 2019 class — have left the program, it’s hard to believe this team will improve all the much. A career-year from Jeremiah Tilmon and a healthy Mark Smith might help, but those are still pretty big asks at this point.
Matt Antonic, Basketball Beat Writer: I’m worried. At times, Missouri looked like a tournament team this season, one that had made a drastic jump forward from last year. Remember those wins over Illinois, Florida and Auburn? Those three teams were certainly tournament bound, and Illinois and Auburn spent most of their season at the top of their conference standings. In Missouri’s last game of the season, the Tigers went scorched earth on Alabama, scoring 48 points in the second half en route to a 19-point win.
Those are the positive. The biggest problem for the program is that when the team didn’t look good, it often looked very bad. As in, worse-than-last season bad. Missouri lost to Butler and Oklahoma in Kansas City because it was unaware the game started until it was in too big a hole to recover. It lost to Tennessee and Mississippi State at home because it lacked the ability to keep pace when the visitors began to hit shots late. The loss to West Virginia in Morgantown is one of the most horrendous efforts put forth by the program in recent memory, and then there is the Charleston Southern debacle.
In year three, several losses were indicative that not enough progress has been made. Cuonzo Martin’s contract allows him another year to rebuild, but Missouri fans are almost certainly going to demand a tournament bid next season, no questions asked. To me, there are quite a few red flags from this past year to make me question if that is a realistic possibility the way the current roster is constructed.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: I’m always an optimist at the beginning of the season (come on, who isn’t?), and I had them going 20-11 by regular season’s end. That’s an NCAA Tournament record to be sure, especially in the chaotic year we just had.
And while certainty is what gets reactions, I’m just not sure I know how to process the year Missouri just had. Much of what we saw on the court was disappointing, but what we didn’t see had a bigger impact as far as I’m concerned. For the third straight year, Cuonzo Martin lost his best overall player and Mark Smith for much of the season. Has he had some crucial missteps? Sure. Has he had some truly abhorrent injury luck? Also sure. Next year seems difficult to predict given what we just saw, but if you could promise me that Jeremiah Tilmon will be back and Mark Smith will be healthy, I’d still feel confident that the Tigers field a good team.
The 2018 recruiting class was a mixed bag in its sophomore year: Xavier Pinson took a step forward and Javon Pickett idled in place, while Torrence Watson fell victim to a major sophomore slump. What’s your feeling on the trio headed into their junior year?
Ryan Herrera: It’s so tough to get a feel for this trio right now. Xavier Pinson stepped up extremely well after that Georgia game, but a lot of that came because of an increased role with Mark Smith out. Can he still put up the numbers he did in a backcourt rotation with a healthy Mark Smith and Dru Smith? His three-point percentage also sat below 30 percent last season. Still, he was easily the most exciting player Missouri had, and another offseason to work on his body and craft could really help him take a jump in year three.
We pretty much know what the Tigers have in Javon Pickett — a defensive-minded player who might go MIA often on offense. He can catch fire like he did against Illinois. He could also end up with just 2 points against weaker competition like Northern Kentucky. He’s best suited as a stopper who isn’t counted on to score, and that’s pretty much what we saw all season.
And Torrence Watson... wow. A guy who was recruited as a dynamic scorer but went scoreless 11 times this past season. A guy who took 75.8% of his shots from deep yet made them at just a 28.1% clip. Did the extended three-point line hurt him? That was at least part of it. But man, he easily took the furthest step back of anyone on the roster. His defensive game did progress, which is likely why Cuonzo Martin kept putting him out on the floor, but that progress was so under-the-radar because it was overshadowed by his offensive regression. Could he still become that scorer Martin thought he was getting a few years ago? He better hope so, or he’ll continue to take the brunt of the fanbase’s criticism.
Matt Antonic: Pinson’s development this season was tremendous. His efforts are part of the reason Missouri was able to record some exciting wins over good teams. I can still see him elevating to dunk on that breakaway against Florida. Javon Pickett has always flashed ability, but has consistently struggled around the rim. When he lost confidence in his three-point shot, he became an offensive liability for much of the season. Pickett’s future will be contingent on his ability to improve his stroke from deep. No one is ever going to demand he become a scoring threat, but Missouri will need more from him next year.
And then there is Watson. The St. Louis native took a barrage of criticism this season, while his on-court production plummeted. From three point range, Watson declined from 36.5% last season to under 29% this season, and was rarely a threat off the dribble. Teams simply picked up on how to defend him. I’m not sure if Watson will ever become a scoring threat off the dribble, but I’m certainly far from ready to give up on him. He is capable on defense, and will have a future in the rotation if he can offer Missouri something from deep.
Josh Matejka: Pretty muted, if we’re being entirely honest. I think Xavier Pinson is an adrenaline shot of a player, and I’m excited to see how he progresses into his later years. But even accounting for his hot streak in SEC play, Pinson still had a middling year by many standards — his assist and turnover rates went in the right direction, but his jump shooting took a major step back. Javon Pickett is what he is — a scrapper that can turn the tides when he has a big game.
Torrence Watson is the one that really threw me for a loop this year. I had him pegged as the team’s breakout player, but he took a step back in almost every meaningful way. Sure, he took some forward strides as a defender. But his jump shooting cratered, his turnover percentage ballooned and he looked to be without confidence all season. I still think he can turn things around and have a useful career, but a whole year in the doldrums should give us pause when considering his upside.
Missouri will be senior heavy in 2020-2021, especially if everyone decides to come back. Which senior is most crucial to the team’s success headed into next year?
Ryan Herrera: I would say Dru Smith, though if Tilmon decides to return for one last season, he will be a very close second. Smith probably had the most to do with keeping the team afloat — even more than Reed Nikko and Pinson — when injuries took their toll in the second half of the season. He gutted out multiple weeks with an ankle injury strictly because the team needed it. He should be the primary point guard next season, and he’ll be the guy that sets the tone on both sides of the ball. He lived up to the hype in 2019-20, and any success Missouri has in 2020-21 will likely be tied to his level of play.
Matt Antonic: The three-point shooting was bad. Really bad. 327th out of 350 teams in Division I bad. The final tally? 29.7% from deep. Missouri needs 2018-19 Mark Smith to emerge next season more than anything else. That year, Smith was on fire, shooting 45% from deep before an injury ended his season in Fayetteville. Smith also dealt with injuries this season, and regressed to shooting 36%. If the deep bomber Mark Smith is still there, Cuonzo Martin will be asking him to stand up come November.
Josh Matejka: It’s hard to say anyone but Jeremiah Tilmon. Dru Smith is the team’s glue guy and can be the main attraction every so often. Mark Smith is the team’s offensive heartbeat, but has issues staying healthy. Jeremiah Tilmon, however, is the man who gets Missouri to its ceiling. Without him, teams can body the Tigers down low and lock up scoring threats from the outside. Yes, he still fouls far too often, but he’s also creating more fouls than ever and becoming a much more efficient scorer. A healthy, effective Jeremiah Tilmon does wonders for Missouri on both ends of the floor, and it’s hard to see them returning to March Madness in 2021 without him.