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Hoops Preview: Incarnate Word enters 2019-2020 trying to find some stability

Missouri opens the 2019-2020 season against a young roster hoping to crawl its way out of the Southland basement.

NCAA Basketball: Carroll College at Stanford
Carson Cunningham is hoping to guide Incarnate Word to success with a whole lot of underclassmen.
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The last time a Cuonzo Martin-coached basketball team faced off against Incarnate Word, the Cardinals had never recorded a losing season in Division I history.

Of course, there’s quite a bit of context that goes into that statement. Incarnate Word transitioned from Division II to the Southland Conference, home to the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin. Seriously, that’s all I could’ve confidently told you about the conference without looking it up. I always forget that Nicholls State has two l’s.

The Cardinals, led by Ken Burmeister, were 42-20 as a Division I school when they traveled to Berkeley, Ca., on December 9, 2015 to face Cuonzo Martin’s California Golden Bears. While the score was tied at half, the Bears ripped off a 25-point third quarter and never relinquished the lead. Tyrone Wallace was KenPom’s game MVP, though heralded freshmen Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown chipped in 25 points and 15 rebounds together. The Cardinals managed to shoot 40 percent from deep, but were ground to a pulp within the arc, shooting a dismal 35.1 percent.

Four years later, and things couldn’t be any different for IWU. The Cardinals have won 25 combined games since the end of the ‘15-’16 season. Burmeister was removed for Purdue grad Carson Cunningham. A program that shot into Division I like a cannon is now struggling to find its footing.

The 2019 squad, despite losing 25 games, found hope in sophomore Christian Peevy, who promptly transferred out of the program. The Cardinals’ other leading scorer, Charles Brown, graduated. The team that will take the floor Wednesday night features a grand total of four upperclassmen and seven freshmen.

So, yeah. Things could be better in San Antonio.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (0-0) Incarnate Word (0-0)
Position Missouri (0-0) Incarnate Word (0-0)
PG Dru Smith (Rs. Jr., 6'3", 203) Des Balentine (Rs. Jr. 6'0", 178)
CG Mark Smith (Jr., 6'5", 220) Dwight Murray Jr. (So., 6'0", 165)
WING Javon Pickett (So., 6'5", 220) Augustine Ene (Jr., 6'4", 205)
PF Kobe Brown (Fr., 6'7", 240) Antoine Smith Jr. (So. 6'7", 215)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Jr., 6'10", 260) Vincent Miszkiewicz (Fr. 6'7", 206)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

While these lineups should be fairly accurate, both sides are subject to some guesswork.

Missouri will likely go with its three returning starters from last year’s team and is almost certain to slot Dru Smith into Jordan Geist’s position. The real question is how Martin wants to start off the year in the PF spot. Much of his offseason chatter has been centered around the idea of going small, which would likely slide Pickett down and include Torrence Watson at the wing. However, most media folk — this site included — seem to think Kobe Brown will get the early call simply because of his college-ready size. If Friday’s exhibition against Central Missouri is any indication, he and Tray Jackson will get a minutes split, though Brown was more effective than Jackson in fewer minutes.

For the Cardinals, it’s easy to assume that Augustine Ene, Dwight Murray Jr., and Antoine Smith Jr. will start — all three had minutes percentages above 56 percent last season. Former Tyler College guard and team captain Des Balentine will also see early floor time. Where Cunningham turns for additional size, though, is uncertain. Vincent Miszkiewicz is one of two freshmen who stand 6’7” or taller, and I went with the South Elgin, Ill., native because of some practice footage in which he appears to be heavily involved.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri O vs. Incarnate Word D (‘18-’19)

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 107 (127) 19.2 (332) 50.5 (181) 21 (318) 31.9 (61) 29.8 (267) 36.3 (78) 47.6 (267) 70.3 (184) 11.3 (307) 9.1 (204)
Incarnate Word 120.6 (353) 17.1 (89) 59.3 (353) 19.7 (98) 32.8 (325) 39.1 (311) 37.6 (324) 61.2 (353) 73.5 (318) 5.1 (339) 9.2 (135)

Obviously, you can take both of these sections with a grain of salt, as KenPom usually needs a few games to update to the new year.

However, we know from Cuonzo’s first two seasons that the Missouri offense will rely on two things: efficient possessions and three-point shooting. The Tigers’ offense was one of the slowest in the country last season, and while it’s easy to see how the presence of Dru Smith could make things a little quicker, it’s not in Cuonzo Martin’s DNA to play the run and gun game. In order to field an effective offensive unit, the Tigers need fewer empty possessions, simply because they’re not going to get that many of them.

Their shooting ability (which figures to be a strength once again) will keep them in games, but where will they turn when the shots aren’t falling and they desperately need a bucket? That’s the hope for Dru Smith, whose playmaking ability was sorely missed on last year’s team.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 01 MVC Championship - Evansville v UNI
Missouri is hoping Dru Smith will be the answer to some of their efficiency woes.
Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What to Watch | Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency

Despite being one of the country’s better three-point shooting teams, Missouri was abysmal within the arc, ranking dead last in two-point shooting percentage. Keeping Tilmon on the floor should help that number go up, but it would certainly help to have the Smiths, Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson find ways to get to the rim. If Missouri is able to score from all areas of the court — and possibly draw a few fouls along the way — it will cut down on empty possessions. Even a semi-efficient offensive performance will be too much for the Cardinals to handle, though.

When Incarnate Word has the ball...

Incarnate Word O vs. Missouri D (‘18-’19)

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Incarnate Word 97.5 (298) 19.3 (338) 51.9 (119) 24.1 (350) 23.1 (322) 34.8 (121) 35.1 (130) 51.4 (113) 80.5 (2) 10 (243) 11.6 (350)
Missouri 97.2 (51) 17.5 (196) 49.4 (115) 18.1 (193) 25.7 (65) 38 (296) 31.9 (45) 50.5 (196) 71.7 (238) 5.2 (336) 7 (319)

Incarnate Word’s own glacial offense was mostly powered by Christian Peevy (who transferred after last season) and Charles Brown (who graduated) last year. Both Peevy and Brown boasted offensive ratings of 104+ and only two returning players logged ratings over 100.

So where does Incarnate Word turn for offense with its two biggest threats departed? Junior combo guard Augustine Ene is a start. Ene shot 40.7 percent from deep last season while logging the highest minutes percentage on the team. While he doesn’t draw a lot of fouls, he shoots over 85 percent when put on the charity stripe. Ene’s %Shots was low for how many minutes he played last season, and it’s likely Cunningham will ask him to do more as an upperclassman.

Sophomore Antoine Smith was the team’s second best shooter from deep and had an ORtg above 100, but the ball tends to get stuck in his hands. Fellow sophomore Dwight Murray is more of a distributor, but struggled with turnovers the same way most freshmen do. There’s not a ton of information on Des Balentine, but his presence as captain certainly indicates he’ll play a role in facilitating the offense.

What to Watch | Three-Point Shooting

The only way a team like Incarnate Word keeps up against a Power Five opponent is by getting hot from three at some point. The Cardinals were already a middling threat to start with, and that was before Peevy and Brown (who found their points at the line and down low, respectively) moved on. Missouri’s size in close-outs is its strength here. If they’re able to limit Ene and Smith to below average shooting nights, there’s no feasible way to predict an upset.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 83, Incarnate Word 55 | Get out to a comfortable lead, stay healthy and get the young guys some minutes. If anything else needs to be said, there’s bound to be trouble.