Don’t look now, but we’re only a month away from the sound of sneakers hitting the hardwood.
Missouri basketball opens its 2019-2020 season four weeks from Wednesday, and we here at Rock M Nation are chomping at the bit to dive into hoops season. Yes, we love our football team and will continue cranking out all of your regularly scheduled content as long as they keep marching into (hopefully) bowl season. But we’d be remiss if we weren’t also offering up our services as (in this writer’s humble opinion) the most extensive and knowledgeable coverage source for Missouri basketball you’ll find anywhere on the internet.
Without further ado, let’s kick off our annual position previews. These will drop every Tuesday until November 5. Per usual, we’re starting with the men who handle the rock.
Dru Smith is the man of the hour (week? month? offseason?) for Missouri — and for good reason. His numbers at Evansville were just the type of thing Missouri was looking for. With expectations set at sky-high levels, what do you expect to see out of the junior guard?
Sam Snelling, Site Manager: Is Final Four MOP expecting too much?
In all seriousness, Smith has seen his share of offseason hype and the build-up is likely to be a letdown. But let’s just say he should be — and likely will be — the most important player on the roster with the possible exception of Jeremiah Tilmon. I tend to think we might be overvaluing his scoring while undervaluing his defense and ability to make the right play offensively.
Smith isn’t going to blow anyone away with his athleticism, but Missouri doesn’t need a ball handler to jump over everyone and make highlight reel plays in the lane. They just need someone who can consistently find the right play and help the offense go from mediocre to good, even when Tilmon is off the floor.
Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: First, let me say I’ll have a piece exploring this in more detail, so I’ll be terse here. I don’t know what fans expect, but the systems at Evansville and Mizzou are stark contrasts. The Purple Aces ran a traditional motion offense, which is big on screening and doesn’t rely on pick-and-rolls. MU, though, utilizes a more modern scheme, incorporating elements that trickled down from the professional ranks. For Smith, it means his defacto redshirt season was spent acclimating to a new style.
Now, we get to see what fruits that process produced. Will we see more high ball-screens, drag pick-and-rolls or handoffs? How often will Dru play off the ball, and what do those lineups look like? In theory, MU’s ball-handling should be better, but will Smith wind up being more of a distributor or scorer? At Evansville, he could toggle between those roles. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a similar situation in Columbia.
Above all, though, you’re betting on Smith’s decision-making and his unruffled persona. MU’s offense doesn’t need a lead guard that can crack the defense open playing out of isolation. Instead, it needs a guard who makes the right read and moves the ball where it needs to go. How Smith goes about that is different, but he’s shown a clear aptitude for making the right play.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: Wouldn’t it be crazy if both Missouri basketball and football had hyped up transfers coming in to lead their programs to the next level in the same year?
In all seriousness, though, look no further than Kelly Bryant when you’re wondering about what to expect from Dru Smith. Like Bryant, Smith put up big numbers at his last stop, but he did it by being smart, efficient and precise. These traits aren’t valued as much in a sport where hype is king, but Smith should bring an incredibly stable presence to a team that has needed one for the past few years.
The thing I’m most interested to see is how Smith acclimates being a less traditional point guard. Like Matt pointed out, Evansville and Missouri run different systems, so Smith will probably be doing less quarterbacking in the half court. Perhaps this leads to fewer raw numbers, but it could also open up Smith’s game to reveal a player we didn’t really see at Evansville. If Smith keeps his demeanor and remains the same efficient player he was two years ago, Missouri will be lucky to have him.
Xavier Pinson tried his best to be Phil Pressey at times last year, but often ended up playing very much to his age. What improvements will help the Chicagoan become a rotation staple for the 2019-2020 Tigers?
Sam Snelling: Pinson usually excelled in freelance, moving the ball away from the flow of the offense and into ISO situations. He showed good body control and was able to break defenders down off the dribble in late clock situations. But that wasn’t what Missouri wanted from him last year.
As Martin has mentioned, they want X to learn to hit singles and focus less on the home runs. He was awful at times defending ball screens, and also struggled with the patience to set up his own ball screens, often leaving his bigs out to dry to pick up illegal screen fouls. So what I’d like to see from Xavier is just to be more patient, work your ball screens, play within the offense a little more, and defend a little better. I think pairing him with Dru Smith can be helpful also, as he can be apart of movement both on and off the ball.
Matt Harris: We all know Pinson had flashes brilliance as a freshmen, but his decision-making and defensive effort needed to improve. I don’t think that analysis has changed. You can’t have a lead guard that posts a 30.0 turnover rate on offense, struggles to finish plays at the rim and can be inattentive when playing away from the ball defensively.
Yet those issues aren’t unique to a player at Pinson’s stage of development.
An offseason gaining functional strength will help him hold up defensively and absorb contact around the basket. Meanwhile, he should have a firm grasp on what Martin wants him to do within the flow of the offense. Yet MU’s personnel can be conducive to lineups that push the ball in transition, giving the sophomore an outlet for his instincts. Finally, Martin also has a backstop in Dru Smith, who can play alongside the sophomore.
Josh Matejka: Pinson struggled to adapt to the flow of the college game in his freshman year, often doing too much and expecting that his speed and vision would create the same open holes as he’d always had in high school. Unfortunately, he learned that college is a different animal, to the tune of a turnover rate north of 30 percent.
What Pinson needs to do in his sophomore year is look to utilize his gifts within the flow of the offense as opposed to setting off on his own at the first sign of trouble. I’d like to see less ISO moves and no-look passes and more of just making the right pass and getting to the right spot on the floor. Pinson will always have a little flash in his game, but it will be much more exciting when he learns to ration it.
Missouri has hurt badly for scoring during Cuonzo’s tenure, and both Smith and Pinson have showed some knack for filling the cup. How much should the lead guards be expected to chip in when it comes to the score sheet?
Sam Snelling: In the best case scenario, not a lot. Both players are capable scorers, but you want your offense funneling through the post and on the wing when possible. More than anything, the offense works best when it’s working to get good open shots, and Xavier had a penchant for wanting to break his man down off the dribble. I don’t think you have to worry about that as much from Smith, but both guys need to buy in on the best shots available. If the shot happens to be theirs, I think you’re confident they can make it. But I’d expect both to be lower usage than what Jordan Geist was last year.
Matt Harris: It depends on matchups and the scouting report. Both have shown the ability drain catch-and-shoots, but we’ll have to wait and see how efficient they are off the bounce. Dru Smith changes speeds, uses deft footwork and guile to outwit defenders around the cup. How effective will that be in a league with longer and more athletic defenders? As for Pinson, he has to show he won’t get knocked off-course once he leaves the floor. For now, they’re tertiary threats behind Tilmon, Mark Smith and Torrence Watson. What matters more is they offer Martin consistency.
Josh Matejka: Smith was a double-digit scorer at Evansville and Pinson notched a few double-digit games in his freshman campaign. However, Missouri will likely be better off if these two are getting others involved rather than themselves. Both have shown a knack for shooting the three, which makes them dangerous on passes out of the post. However, it’s a bridge too far to expect them to dribble up the court and drain threes off of ball screens and step backs. Pinson is more of a slasher anyway, and I wouldn’t be upset if he focused more on getting to the rim as a way of opening space for big men or cutters like Watson, Pickett and Mark Smith.