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Sophomore trio will be key to Missouri’s next steps

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The juniors may get the attention, but the 2018 recruiting class will ultimately decide how far Missouri goes.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Can Jeremiah Tilmon stay out of foul trouble? Will Mark Smith stay healthy? Is Dru Smith the savior figure he’s billed to be?

These are all questions you’ll find readily available when doing some cursory research on the 2019-2020 Missouri Tigers. It’s not all that surprising — T-T-T-Tilmon and the Smiths represent an ideological ceiling for a program with only two NCAA appearances in the past seven seasons. These are Missouri’s most obvious candidates to someday find themselves on an NBA roster. They’re well-established contributors and face-of-the-program types. Without them, Missouri likely has a considerably lower floor and ceiling.

But the three juniors aren’t the only trio on this Missouri roster who will play a role in how far Missouri goes this year. In fact, the three-headed sophomore class of Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson may have even more to say than their elders.

Since the time Cuonzo Martin was hired at the University of Missouri, there’s been an expectation that he would rebuild the pillars of a once-proud program that had quickly gone to shambles. After years of APR struggles, minor NCAA scandals and lackluster recruiting, Missouri had gone from ballyhooed SEC newcomer to perennial basement-dweller.

One of Martin’s first tasks, though, was to lay a firm foundation.

Part of any rebuilding project outside of Chapel Hill, Lexington or Durham involves the influx of three-to-four year players, contributors who may not hear their names on draft night, but will almost certainly hear them on senior night. These are the types of players who you see in late March, hitting big shots or coming up with timely steals.

Enter Pickett, Watson and Pinson. While Jeremiah Tilmon has certainly stated his case as one of the key building blocks of the Martin era, no one represents hope for these Tigers like the sophomore trio. One year removed from the all-in moves of the 2017-2018 season, these three got in on the ground floor — the one that started at 15-17 without any future lottery picks (sorry, Jontay).

Pickett, Watson and Pinson make up a core of players from differing backgrounds. Pickett, the high school scoring star, had to go the prep school route and was still considered a lower level pickup — just ask Illinois fans how they felt about him in 2018. Watson, the crown jewel of the 2018 class, had offers across Division I landscape before choosing to stay home. And Pinson, the facilitator to more highly regarded prospects at Simeon Academy, came to Missouri with a chip on his shoulder and an appetite to prove he was more than just an afterthought.

Maybe it’s just romanticism, but aren’t these the types of stories you hear from foundational players? They’re the Marcus Denmons, the JT Tillers... dare I say it, the Kim Andersons? Some come with plaudits and some come without, but all stick around for a long time, punctuating their Mizzou stories with plenty of memories.

Each of these players saw their roles change drastically in year one. While Pickett’s nose-to-the-grindstone mentality earned him early minutes, Watson languished on the bench in search of his defensive stride while Pinson couldn’t scrape together consistent performances. And while each of their freshman years looked different, the trio ended up contributing a sizable portion in their first year as Tigers. Together, they scored 31.2 percent of the team’s points, gobbled up 21 percent of the rebounds, shot 35 percent from behind the arc... and gave up 33 percent of the turnovers. Pretty significant for a trio of newbies, wouldn’t you say?

Mind you, this isn’t to say the season lives or dies with these three. It really doesn’t live or die with anyone. On a team built up of no superstars, the group contribution is what matters. But in a sport where most key contributors are juniors and seniors, Missouri will look to three sophomores to determine their next steps. Avoid the sophomore slump, and Missouri could be riding high come March. Fail to build on last year’s campaign however, and the Tigers will be forced to rely heavily on a foul-prone big man, a transfer and a shooter with a touchy injury history to carry them.

So, no, Missouri’s sophomores may not get the media shine equal to some of their teammates. But their contributions will be vital in making sure Missouri doesn’t spend another offseason wondering when their time in the spotlight will come again.