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The outside expectations don’t match the internal ones at Missouri this season

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Previewing the #6 team in the SEC, the Missouri Tigers

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri is looking for a little luck for a change. Two years ago, when Cuonzo Martin was hired, he brought the country’s top recruit, Michael Porter, Jr, back to Columbia with him. But Porter was felled by a back injury and was of little to no impact on the season other than preseason excitement. Without his best player, Martin and the Tigers soldiered on and found a way into the NCAA tournament.

Then last year, Porter’s younger brother, Jontay, was set to be the focal point of a Missouri team looking for a return trip to the tournament. This time, it was Jontay who was injured, when he tore his ACL in a preseason scrimmage and was forced to sit out the entire season.

Two seasons, two major injuries to their best player. Still, Martin had a young team fight and perform better than the resulting numbers. The Tigers struggled offensively as they fielded a young team. They still managed a top 70 finish in KenPom's final numbers, and return a host of the roster who got them there. All they need this season is a little bit of injury luck for the tables to turn.


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Mizzou Preview

#6 Missouri Tigers

Last Season: 15 - 17 (5-13 in conference) No. 68 in KenPom

My Prediction: 19 - 11 (10-8, 6th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 10.5 - 7.6 (5th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 13th in conference

KenPom Projection: 19 - 11 (10-8 in conference) No. 39

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Cuonzo Martin | Third Season, 35-30

Cuonzo Martin is one of the more misunderstood men in college basketball. He’s a quiet, thoughtful man who keeps a close circle, which allows for the vacuum of air about him to be filled with supposition. He’s been called a job hopper by some, a cheater by others. But those close to him would say he’s serious, focused, and chronically honest. With each job change there was a reason, and Martin is hoping it’s all behind him. The Missouri job is close to home, and Columbia could provide the last stop if everything works out.

The last part is where the legitimate questions can be raised. Martin is a good basketball coach. But how good of a basketball coach is he? We don’t quite know yet. The bet Missouri made is Coach Martin’s best days are ahead of him. His two best seasons so far were a 24-13 team in 2014 at Tennessee, and a 23-11 team in 2016 at Cal. In his career, Martin has only the 2011 Missouri State team who finished 26-9 with single digit losses. The floor has been established, and it’s time for Martin to start showing what his ceiling might be.

Seat Temp: COLD

missouri 10 year look 2019

What is Missouri as a basketball program anymore? In the 80s and 90s, it was a top 15 level program. But in the last 20 years, it would be a hard case to make to call Missouri a top 40 program. And in the last five years, they’ve been mediocre to awful. It’s forgivable for the SEC media to not expect much from Missouri when the NCAA trip two years ago looks more like an aberration than a re-establishment of a pattern. That’s the task set forth for this year’s team; get back to the NCAA tournament and start making it a habit.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Jordan Geist graduation 32 83.72% 22.09% 25.71% 16.74%
Kevin Puryear graduation 32 57.91% 10.56% 11.43% 11.58%
Ronnie Suggs transfer 27 18.84% 2.14% 1.01% 3.77%
K.J. Santos transfer 20 19.07% 1.16% -0.33% 3.81%
Adam Wolf graduation 4 0.31% 0.00% -0.05% 0.06%
Christian Guess transfer 1 0.54% 0.00% -0.09% 0.11%
36.08% 35.95% 37.68% 36.07%

Opponents throughout the SEC have to be thrilled Jordan Geist’s eligibility is up. Geist was a pest in every sense of the word for the last three seasons, and by his own determination turned himself into an All-SEC level performer. Geist's production and leadership were key for the Tigers a year ago, and he’ll be difficult to replace. Kevin Puryear had a breakout freshman season for an awful Tiger team, but his play the next three seasons leveled off in a serious way. Once Jontay Porter suffered his knee injury, Puryear’s role shifted into one where he was the primary source of production at the combo forward spot, and he struggled.

Ronnie Suggs transferred for a graduate season after he was put on scholarship for his senior year, but spent much of his time at Missouri as a walk-on who was asked to provide spot minutes on the wing and had his best game against the Kentucky Wildcats. K.J. Santos was largely a let down off the bench as he struggled to fill in with any kind of role, and he transferred shortly after the season.

Missouri got one good season out of Jontay Porter, before his ACL injury and move to professional ranks. As a freshman, the younger Porter was a key figure in the Tigers’ NCAA tournament team with his playmaking and ability to extend the floor with his shooting.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Mark Smith JR CG 19 41.78% 10.09% 60.70% 11.58%
Jeremiah Tilmon JR POST 31 58.06% 14.60% 57.90% 15.68%
Javon Pickett SO WING 31 62.64% 11.16% 44.00% 8.60%
Torrence Watson SO WING 32 56.67% 10.51% 52.00% 7.58%
Xavier Pinson SO PG 31 44.19% 9.53% 56.00% 9.16%
Reed Nikko SR POST 32 27.67% 4.51% 61.10% 5.14%
Mitchell Smith R-JR POST 31 28.14% 3.63% 56.30% 4.66%
Evan Yerkes* SO WING 1 0.16% 0.00% 0.00% -0.07%
Brooks Ford* SO CG 1 0.31% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Dru Smith R-JR CG TRANSFER
Parker Braun R-FR CF REDSHIRT
63.92% 64.03% 62.33%
NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Auburn vs Missouri Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremiah Tilmon | JUNIOR | POST

If you were to create a word cloud for Jeremiah Tilmon and his time so far at Missouri, two of the biggest words in the cloud would likely be tantalizing and frustrating. Last season, when Tilmon was in the game for the Tigers, the Missouri offense hummed. Get the ball to Tilmon on the block and he would force the defenses to decide between defending Tilmon with a single defender, sending a soft double team, or a hard double team. Either way, he must be considered.

The frustrating part comes with his penchant for fouls. We’ve covered the topic at length, but the gist is— Missouri’s offense is better (roughly about 0.1 points per possession) with him on the floor, and even better when he’s not in foul trouble (it jumps to 0.2 points per possession when he’s not in foul trouble). Tilmon made strides last year at staying on the floor with more frequency, and if he can take one more step forward in that regard, Missouri might have an All-SEC level performer.

Maybe the surprise of the recruiting class last year was the play of Javon Pickett. After losing his scholarship opportunity with an Illinois coaching change, Pickett landed at Missouri and worked his way into a starting role. It wasn’t always efficient, but Pickett quickly became a leader on the team with his effort and intensity, and should factor into the starting rotation again this year. Behind him off the bench is the higher rated and more offensively skilled Torrence Watson. Watson’s shooting was key down the stretch when he stepped in for the injured Mark Smith, but it was his improved defense which helped him sustain his minutes on the floor.

Reed Nikko is a serviceable backup to Tilmon, and has been a stalwart off the bench for the past three years. Mitchell Smith provides them shooting from the center position, but has struggled defensively. And Parker Braun is also going to be vying for minutes in the post; he brings some shooting after taking a redshirt season last year to add some muscle.

Xavier Pinson was a fearless playmaking point guard last year, sometimes to his own detriment. He sported a rough 30.6% turnover rate, but when he wasn’t turning it over, Pinson was a nice surprise offensively. But the guy most Mizzou fans are looking forward to seeing is Dru Smith, the Evansville transfer. Smith is an efficient combo guard who should step in and be a starter from game one at the point guard spot.

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

Mark Smith | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD

In talking about the injuries above, it went unmentioned that Missouri lost Mark Smith for 13 games to a foot injury, and he played two other games in a clearly hobbled state. Roughly half of the season was lost for the sharpshooting transfer from Illinois. When Smith transferred in, he was looking for a scenery change after a rough season in Champaign, and he found it with immediate eligibility in Columbia. Smith automatically stepped into a starting role and quickly lived up to his lofty high school recruiting ranking. Smith shot lights out and was hitting at a nearly 48% clip from deep before he was sidelined. On spot up jumpers alone, Smith was good for a 1.767 ppp, which is eye-popping, to say the least.

Just as impressive was Smith’s defense. He was steady on that end of the floor, which helped made up for a lot of errors from Missouri’s other young players. Following surgery on his foot, it remains to be seen how quickly Smith will be able to find his form again this season, but if he’s as good as he was for the first 17 games last season, he’ll create driving lanes because you’ll have to find him any time he’s outside the three point line.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Tray Jackson 6'8 215 ★★★★ 82 CF
Fr Mario McKinney, Jr. 6'2 185 ★★★ 160 CG
Fr Kobe Brown 6'7 240 ★★★ 251 WING
Jr Axel Okongo 7'0 240 Transfer - POST

With his freshman class, Martin went out and added versatility and athleticism, two things the rest of the roster was needing. In 4-star forward Tray Jackson, the Tigers have a supremely athletic above-the-rim forward the roster has lacked for years. Jackson’s ceiling is incredibly high; it’s just a matter of time for how long it takes him to put it together. Similar to Jackson is Mario McKinney, Jr, one of the most electrifying athletes in the 2019 class. Listed at 6’2, McKinney explodes off the floor and has some of the most watched highlight videos on the web. He’s still a little raw offensively, but should provide a lot of energy. Kobe Brown provides the versatility, he has the size to defend multiple positions, but the skill set to handle the ball and be a playmaker from the wing. Brown might be more ready to contribute than any other newcomer.

The last late pickup in the class was Axel Okongo. Missouri seemingly took a flier on an athletic and mobile center with some rough spots to his offensive game. But he’s an intelligent defender, which might be enough for spot minutes this year. Okongo and Missouri appealed and got him a second year of eligibility after he lost one trying to get his visa sorted out before playing in junior college.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Dru Smith Xavier Pinson
(2) Combo Guard Mark Smith Mario McKinney, Jr.
(3) Wing Javon Pickett Torrence Watson Kobe Brown
(4) Combo Forward Tray Jackson Mitchell Smith Parker Braun
(5) Post Jeremiah Tilmon Reed Nikko Axel Okongo

Let’s start with the knowns. Dru Smith, Mark Smith (if fully healthy), and Jeremiah Tilmon are the three guys I think you can count on to start. From there, things get interesting. Seeing Javon Pickett at SEC Media days means he’s probably the fourth starter, but could do so from the three or four spot. So, scenario one has Xavier Pinson pushing Dru Smith to an off-the-ball spot, with Mark Smith and Pickett at forward. Another scenario has Watson stepping in and pushing Pickett to the four. There’s also playing a little more true to position and landing one of the freshman forwards at the four spot, which is what I’ve got above.

This is still a roster where I can see Martin consistently going to 9 or 10 players in order to keep the development going on some of the younger guys. But the knows above? They look like they’re fixed.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 19-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 19-11 (huh)

NCAA Basketball: Crossroads Classic-Butler at Indiana Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Incarnate Word 346 W
Nov 8 Home Northern Kentucky 132 W
Nov 12 Away Xavier 18 L
Nov 18 Home Wofford 121 W
Nov 20 Home Morehead State 287 W
Nov 25 Neutral Butler 33 W
Nov 26 Neutral Okla / Stanford 25 / 90 L
Dec 3 Home Charleston Southern 209 W
Dec 7 Away Temple 94 W
Dec 15 Home Southern Illinois 220 W
Dec 21 Neutral Illinois 35 W
Dec 30 Home Chicago State 351 W
Jan 25 Away West Virginia 59 L
avg 158.75 9-3

KenPom and I arrived at the same destination, despite taking different routes to get there. Missouri’s non-conference slate is an unusual one, as it’s loaded with difficult road matchups and is full of reasonably challenging lower level opponents. Most of the teams Missouri is hosting can contend for conference titles, but the marquee games are the road contests and the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. Facing Butler should be a tough task, as the Bulldogs are trying to rebound from a tough season a year ago. On the other side of that bracket are the Oklahoma Sooners and Stanford Cardinal. Missouri would obviously prefer to face OU in Kansas City and bring back a bit of that old Big 8 vibe.

An early trip to Cincinnati to face Xavier is a game where Missouri can assert themselves, as the Musketeers are in the preseason top 25. A road game at Temple won’t be easy either. And everyone might be paying more attention to this year’s Bragging Rights game with both the Tigers and Illinois looking at bounce back seasons. Missouri also will trek to West Virginia to take on another team on the rebound in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Away Kentucky 2 L
Jan 7 Home Tennessee 19 W
Jan 11 Home Florida 12 W
Jan 14 Away Mississippi State 53 L
Jan 18 Away Alabama 70 L
Jan 21 Home Texas A&M 58 W
Jan 28 Home Georgia 55 W
Feb 1 Away South Carolina 69 L
Feb 4 Away Texas A&M 58 L
Feb 8 Home Arkansas 44 W
Feb 11 Away LSU 38 L
Feb 15 Home Auburn 22 W
Feb 18 Home Ole Miss 60 W
Feb 22 Away Arkansas 44 L
Feb 26 Away Vanderbilt 148 W
Feb 29 Home Mississippi State 53 W
Mar 4 Away Ole Miss 60 L
Mar 7 Home Alabama 70 W
avg 51.94 10-8

Avoiding both Kentucky and Florida in the home-and-home draw is a good way to move your way up the rankings, and Missouri gets them both in two of their first three games of the schedule. Dive right in! Getting Florida at home early could be beneficial since the Gators are young and may still be working out some kinks. Then you get into the home-and-home opponents where Missouri has Texas A&M and Arkansas, two teams who are rebuilding and breaking in new coaches, and the Ole Miss Rebels, who don’t have a ton of depth. Mississippi State and Alabama should both be tough, but all Missouri needs to do with them is to get a split from both. Then there are winnable road games against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, so realistically, all Missouri would need to do is win out at home and beat Vandy on the road and they're at 10-8.

Winning out at home is a taller task than you think when you have three games against Tennessee, Florida, and Auburn, all of whom are picked higher than the Tigers (in other polls). Just go 2-1 in those games and now you’ve got to win two on the road to get above .500. So it’s easy to see how Missouri has some margin for error in their SEC schedule.

OVERVIEW

The bigger question about this team revolves around the expectations within the league. Obviously, by the SEC Media standards, it’s not very high. Within local circles, it’s higher.

But what about Cuonzo Martin and his team?

Last year, the team felt close, but ultimately struggled to get over the hump. There were some high points, like their six game winning streak in December which included wins over UCF, Xavier, and Illinois. But an early conference skid put the doubts in the minds of a young team and an 0-3 start turned into a 3-12 record with wins over 91st ranked Texas A&M and 155th ranked Vanderbilt, plus a decent home win over Arkansas. With as much bad luck as Missouri has had the last two years, plus the previous disastrous three years, there has to be a turn at some point. I think Martin and his team are expecting it to be this year.

missouri shot chart 2019 preview
Missouri’s returning players shot chart per synergystats

The elements of a rebound are all there. A young returning core of players, good shooting, a recruiting class which fills out some holes, and buy-in. Like every team, Missouri still has a lot of questions to answer in getting there, but their advantage over some of the teams below them with similar questions is they’ve got better and more known depth. You have an idea of what sort of production the Tigers will get from players like Pinson and Watson and Pickett.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest question surrounding this team lies around Jeremiah Tilmon. We’ve mapped the foul trouble, and we’ve also mapped his progress in the area. Nobody is asking him to be perfect, but if he improves at the same rate he did last year and pushes his minutes per game closer to 30 than 20, then Missouri is likely to go from a middle of the road offensive team (ranked 127th in Adjusted Efficiency) to a good one. With expected growth on defense just simply due to physical maturity from the bulk of the lineup, it’s not unreasonable to think the defense can improve on the 51st ranked unit a year ago.

All Missouri needs to do to improve from the 107.0 adjusted offensive efficiency last year to a mark of 110.0 is keep Tilmon on the floor a little more, keep Mark Smith healthy, and get moderate improvements from their supporting cast. If they’re around the 110 mark, it puts them in the range of the top 60 offenses (there might be an overall dip this year with the 3-point line moving back, but I’d say top 60 is a reasonable ask). Couple that improvement with a better defensive squad and suddenly you’re an NCAA tournament team.

Maybe that’s why so much of the non-Missouri media prognostication has been surprising. The expectations outside the program seem to remember the Tigers more as the program they were in four of the last five years. An underestimation of not only the program, but for the type of coach Cuonzo Martin is. We don’t yet know what his ceiling is as a coach, or what the ceiling of the Mizzou Basketball program is under Martin, but last year seemed to establish a floor for the program. I don’t think we’ll see any kind of ceiling this year, but probably more a return to normalcy, where the Tigers are an NCAA tournament team more often than not.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.