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Mizzou Basketball Position Preview: Combo Guards

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Mark Smith represented Missouri’s biggest scoring threat last year. Will he stay healthy enough to take the next step into All-Conference territory?

NCAA Basketball: Morehead State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

We’re counting the weeks until Missouri men’s basketball season tips off by previewing the roster, group by group. If you missed any of our previous previews, see below:

Today we’re continuing with the back court by looking at Missouri’s combo guards.

Mark Smith was Missouri’s best player on the court last season, becoming the sharpshooter and lockdown defender he looked like in high school. Is he capable of reaching greater heights... possibly All-SEC level?

Sam Snelling, Site Manager: I’m more interested to see what Smith can produce beyond his shooting. We know he’s an exceptional defender, but what Smith really needs to do in order to take the next step is improve his finishing around the basket.

With his body, Smith should be able to finish with contact but he was... well, bad at it last year. If Smith wants to reach All-SEC levels, he really needs to be able to take defenders off the dribble and finish with contact. Watching Smith move on the court last year, he’s not anyone who is going to blow past defenders, but finishing through contact and converting around the rim will take him a long way.

Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: To reach that plateau, Smith’s jump-shooting can’t fall into a slump, and he’ll have to be the same stellar off-ball presence defensively. A slight dip from behind the 3-point arc, where he shot a 45 percent clip, seems natural. But if he’s still hovering at 38 or 39 percent, that’s tolerable. However, Smith’s ankle injury gives me slight pause about whether it will hamper his lateral agility on defense when tracking his man around the floor. And to pick up the thread from Sam: What impact might it have on his ability to finish plays as a driver?

Those caveats aside, if Smith can mostly replicate what he did last season, I think he’ll wind up in the hopper for postseason honors. But I also think he’ll need the rest of the rotation to take steps forward. That means Torrence Watson consistently dialing in his shooting stroke, keeping defenses from loading up on Smith. It requires Jeremiah Tilmon staying on the floor and making smart reads when passing out of double teams. And it requires Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson making sound choices when running the offense.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: I don’t think there’s any doubt Smith can reach All-SEC levels. The real question is whether his body will let him. He’s already been quite injury-prone in his two college years, and it’s hard to peg him as one of the SEC’s true elite players until we see he can withstand the majority of a full season.

Injuries aside, Smith is a great on-ball defender and rangy shooter already. The next step is finishing around the rim with both consistency and strength. Fragility notwithstanding, Smith’s size should allow him to go downhill without being pushed around and he can handle the ball well enough to add this wrinkle to his game. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together. To say whether or not a player will do something that simple is really a statement on what you think about his drive. I think Smith has the drive, but again, will his body hold up?

Mario McKinney, Jr. is the legacy kid in this year’s class, an explosive spark plug who could rack up highlight reel moments in very few minutes. How much is fair for Missouri fans to expect out of the Vashon product?

Sam Snelling: I don’t know what you expect from a numbers stand point, but I think you can expect impact when he’s on the floor. McKinney isn’t the most polished player right now, but he’s electric and he’s fearless. The good news for Rio is the Tigers don’t need him to be awesome, they just need him to provide energy and defense and a little havoc off the bench. What I’d really like to see is him develop his ball skills and shooting, because if he can be consistent with the ball and knock down outside shots, the sky can be the limit and maybe in short order.

Matt Harris: Does McKinney need to consistently sink jumpers? Yes. Will he need to exercise prudence with the ball in his hands? Absolutely. But when was the last time MU had a player who could simply go get you a bucket and was hellbent on achieving the objective? There are going to be plays that drive you nuts, but there will be others only he can make. Assuming MU ratchets up some defensive pressure, there will be opportunities for the Vashon alum to lurk in gaps, pick off passes and sprint the floor.

And as I’ve said repeatedly, McKinney is comfortable being a spark plug. Imagine a lineup of McKinney, Xavier Pinson, Torrence Watson, Tray Jackson and Jeremiah Tilmon. Not only can you pick up the pace, but you have at least three players who can wreak havoc once they get downhill, a kick-out option and a lob threat lurking in the short corner. With one substitution, Martin can change the entire dynamic on the floor.

Josh Matejka: Give me all your Mario McKinney stock — I’m buying it all. The Vashon product has gone mostly under the radar in non-Missouri circles due to his non-elite ranking and unrefined game. But if we’re to believe Cuonzo Martin, who has singled out McKinney as the most improved player on the team, the Missouri faithful could be in for a nice surprise.

McKinney’s game hinges on the energy he brings to the floor, something that sets him apart from most players on the team. He’s a killer with and without the ball, and you’re only going to beat him if you earn it. That may sound like lots of intangible talk, and it is. But McKinney, with some polish added to his high school reel, represents a two-way threat that’s going to sneak up and bite a lot of teams. Will he have freshman moments? Sure, all freshmen do. But they’ll be outweighed by that undeniable buzz you feel every time he’s on the floor.

The Missouri lineup is quite small in the back court, and positional flexibility will be essential. Is it even fair to expect players like Mark Smith (and Javon Pickett or Torrence Watson, by extension) to fit into traditional roles?

Sam Snelling: Are they small? I mean, they aren’t huge, but with Watson and Mark Smith on the wing, that’s good size. I would think if your secondary ball handler is in the 6’4-6’5 range, then you’re probably doing fine with your size. Missouri wasn’t similarly sized — if not less so— and were one of the better rebounding teams in the country last season. But I think I worry more about offensive efficiency of the younger players than size.

I think Missouri has a good combination of size, whether it’s by the sturdiness of some of their guys (like Mark and Dru Smith), the more natural athletes, and guys who are a little more rangy. There are enough to be able to mix and match without losing a lot of production on either end of the floor.

At least that’s the thought.

Matt Harris: Setting aside physical measurements, Martin has a quartet of potential ball-handlers in Dru Smith, Pinson, Mark Smith and McKinney. The linchpin is how the latter two perform as secondary creators, whether it’s playing out of ball screens or attacking a closeout. While Martin doesn’t like to label guards, I take the view that one initiates offense, one needs to be able to shoot and attack, while a third spaces the floor or runs off screens.

When you use that prism, the backcourt makes more sense. Dru Smith can play the point, but he’s also capable of using a flare screen or spotting up. Pinson’s vision is stellar, and he showcased a steady perimeter stroke last season. We’ve already noted Mark Smith’s prowess from long distance and his need to improve as a passer. Finally, McKinney can push the ball or run the floor on the break.

Roles can mutate based on the pairing Martin picks, and it’s that flexibility he’s coveted since taking the job.

Josh Matejka: To echo Sam’s point above: are we sure Missouri is that small? They may not have elite size in the wings like some teams do, but the Tigers aren’t running with the “Big Guard U” moniker for no reason.

The real question is how Martin will switch up his lineups to accommodate the gap between big guards and post size. We’ve heard lots of talk about how Martin could potentially go small early on, putting Torrence Watson at combo forward and allowing Jeremiah Tilmon to pick and choose from a wealth of options out of the post. We could also see Martin go with a wealth of ball-handlers (the Smiths and Pinson) to free up Dru’s offensive game. The Tigers seem to have the shooters to mix-and-match, and Martin should have the freedom to choose his spots depending on the opponents’ defensive weaknesses.