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Rock M Nation’s Staff Basketball Preview

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Hoops is back, y’all! In anticipation of the 2019-2020 season, the Rock M masthead gets together to answer pressing questions about the coming campaign.

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

Folks, we’ve got a basketball jones. And it’s about to be fulfilled.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the 2019-2020 SEC Basketball Season and how it relates to your Missouri Tigers. We’ve previewed the roster position by position. Sam has written up an in-depth breakdown for every team in the conference. And Dive Cuts continues to be the premiere source of Missouri basketball conversation you’ll find anywhere on the internet.

However, as we prepare for opening night, it’s time for us to lay it all on the line. We’ve got predictions to make and takes to fire off. So here is the official Rock M Nation basketball preview from your Rock M Hoops coverage team.

Welcome to Year Three of the Cuonzo Martin Era at the University of Missouri! HCCM’s first two years have been marked by lots of injuries, but he’s also led Missouri to a tournament in the midst of a rebuild. On a scale of 1 to 5 (five being the most confident), where would you rate your feelings on the program’s direction?

Sam Snelling, Site Manager: I’m fully at like 4.25, because for all the knocks I’ve seen on Cuonzo Martin, getting to see him up close has changed my initial concerns in a lot of ways. I think he’s an upper half coach in the SEC at least, and this league has 14 really good basketball coaches in it. Put another way, I know there are two coaches in the league who are better than he is, but after that I’m not sure. Watching the job Cuonzo did in year one, and then scraping a top 70 KenPom finish in year two despite some serious setbacks, I just think the more he’s allowed to cook, the better this program is going to get.

Matthew Harris, Basketball Editor: I’ll go with 3.5. That’s a hedge, but this season will probably give us a true sense about the direction of the program. It’s one where the Porters don’t define its identity. The roster truly bears Martin’s imprint, and if it can be elite defensively, balanced offensively and navigate a rocky road slate, it might see its name pop up in the field of 68. Should that come to pass, the rating goes up.

However, if the trio of sophomores stalls out, Dru Smith struggles to adapt and Tilmon lives up to his current brand, it’ll be worth asking whether there were some flaws in the blueprints for this team. Entering Martin’s third season, I’m inclined to think he’s been undone by bad injury luck, which has blotted out an otherwise solid rebuild effort. On the eve of the season, I’m just trying to price in risk.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: I’m not quite at a four, but I’m closer to that than a 3, so let’s go with 3.75. A lot of Cuonzo Martin’s “struggles” have come from a rotten run of injury luck. Consider how differently we’d feel if Michael Porter, Jr. had played an entire season, if Jontay Porter’s knee had held or if Mark Smith had finished out his first season in black and gold. Even if the result is only a handful of wins here and there, we might be talking about two years of 23-9 and 18-14 as opposed to 20-13 and 15-17. That’s a major difference.

That being said, it remains to be seen if the talent Cuonzo Martin believes in can put Missouri in the tournament consistently. It may require another year or two to know for sure, but a bid this season would go a long way toward earning that patience.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Missouri
Cuonzo Martin is headed into a pivotal Year Three at Missouri.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Herrera, Lead Basketball Beat Writer: I’ll give the program 3.5 stars for now. Martin has proven he can put together a competitive, tournament-ready team before, and I think he’s got more talent and potential now than he did that first season. This is still a young core, and they’ve now had another offseason to gel. Martin hasn’t yet been able to haul in the top prospects that this program needs to compete with the best, but he’s proven that he can keep Missouri in the fight for them until the very end (though Josh Christopher could change that) while also landing high-upside talents like Mario McKinney, Jr. and Tray Jackson. I do need more from Martin and the team before I can give them 4 or 5 stars, but with another successful season and maybe even a tournament appearance, they’ll be right on the cusp.

Matt Antonic, Basketball Beat Writer: The coaching job Martin did in the first year with all of the distractions was enough for me to become a believer. Even last season, Martin had the Tigers competitive in several games despite more injury and depth problems. This year, with the deepest roster he’s had in three years, I’m ready to see him put it all together. I’ll give him a 4.5.

Collin Griffith, Basketball Columnist: I’ve got to say my confidence level is about a 4. What the Tigers lack in star power, they make up for with depth and unrealized talent. They have a roster that Martin can fit to his ideal playing style, with a deep back court rotation and a front court anchored by Jeremiah Tilmon. This team may not seem like the most exciting/compelling, but has almost sneaky-good potential to make some noise throughout the season and possibly into March.

We’ve noted repeatedly that expectations are notably lower on the outside than they are on the inside. Why do you think non-Missouri folk seem to be lower on this program?

Sam Snelling: Because for four out of the last five years they’ve been awful from a record standpoint. I don’t think people outside of the program are going to get as deep into the numbers on what last year’s team was really like, because it requires a lot of work. National media types tend to focus on the teams who are good every year, and pay less attention the worse a program is. For five years, Missouri averaged 12.4 wins a season and just 4.6 in SEC play. That’s a rough trend.

Matthew Harris: If you know nothing about Mizzou, outside of the fact they were star-crossed with the Porters, the collection of talent can look a tad underwhelming. There’s no elite offensive threat. The best interior player fouls way too much. And the last two recruiting classes have been solid but unspectacular. Heck, even those of us who follow this program closely acknowledge there are a slew of questions the Tigers must answer. Coupled with the program’s recent history, would you be bullish on their prospects? Better to be conservative and be surprised than oversell what’s in Columbia.

Josh Matejka: It’s fairly easy to understand. In a league where Kentucky and Florida consistently roam, Tennessee has built itself into an annual contender and programs like Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss are on the rise, would you look at Missouri’s roster and think they were a top-tier threat? Martin’s brand of program-building isn’t dependent on a lot of flash, so it’ll take some “show me” results for non-local types to start buying in.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Missouri
Jeremiah Tilmon is one of the few players on Missouri’s roster that outside fans expect to be a threat.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Herrera: The fact is, there are still a few big questions marks surrounding this team. Many of those around the program are bullish on Dru Smith’s potential, but is he actually the real deal that will be the point guard Missouri needs? We want to believe that Jeremiah Tilmon has finally got it figured out heading into his third season, but has he truly gotten over the foul issues that continue to keep him off the court? Mark Smith proved to be a go-to scorer after transferring from Illinois last season, but is he over the injury that forced him to sit out 13 of the team’s last 15 games? The way local reporting has gone this offseason, most of the answers to those questions would be yes, but I believe non-Missouri folk have been more skeptical than that.

Matt Antonic: People outside of the Missouri program don’t know how - at times - the Tigers seemed to be in the game last year, only for their opponent to pull away down the stretch because Mizzou didn’t have enough depth. The addition of an athletic freshman class, Dru Smith becoming eligible and Mark Smith’s return from injury have been relatively low key in terms of news outside of the state.

Collin Griffith: It seems to me that the low expectations around this season could be due to the lack of hype/big names at the program. The past few seasons have brought more attention to Columbia due to a pair of high-profile brothers. Now, with both of the Porters gone, a lot of that attention and intrigue around the program left with it. Now the team is seemingly full of low-profile guys who are ready to put their noses to the grindstone and show all the pundits wrong.

Missouri’s roster doesn’t contain any surefire All-SEC or NBA talent, but the Tigers are oozing with depth and potential. Name the one player you think is going to become a household name this season.

Sam Snelling: I want to say Dru Smith, but I don’t think many households will notice how good he is at all the things he does because he maybe isn’t scoring 15 points a game. So I’ll go with Mark Smith. Smith has the ability to average around 13-14 points and grab 5-ish rebounds, which should be him in the conversation for All-SEC.

Matthew Harris: Tilmon, for better or worse. Assuming he finally puts the foul issue to bed, MU will have an All-SEC caliber player in its rotation. If he reverts to form, you’ll be hearing familiar refrains asking why he just can’t live up to his potential. Additionally, the back court seems like a group that’s going to take a by-committee approach to production. That’s not exactly how you produce a luminary figure. It’s also a year where depth at combo forward and post is relatively shallow across the SEC, which makes it easier for a player like Tilmon to stand out.

Josh Matejka: I have to earn my St. Louis homer plaudits and go with Torrence Watson. The Whitfield product struggled to gain traction in his freshman season, but ended on a torrid stretch when he finally found his defensive footing. An offseason in the weight room, combined with his preternatural athleticism and instincts could lead to a sophomore jump as opposed to a slump.

To clarify, do I think he’ll be an all-conference player as a sophomore? No, I think we’re still another year from that. But it’s easy to see how, by season’s end, opposing teams and fans will have keyed in on Watson as a player to keep tabs on every time down the court.

Evansville v Louisville
Several of our writers have Dru Smith pegged as the breakout player on this year’s Missouri roster.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ryan Herrera: I think Jeremiah Tilmon finally has it figured out and will be a star by season’s end. He improved almost across the board last season, even adding almost five extra minutes per game while decreasing his season-total in personal fouls — his two biggest problems during his frustrating freshman campaign. I believe he’ll cut down on the fouls even more this season, which in turn will allow him to stay on the floor and really show us what he’s made of. The SEC’s coaches voted him to the All-SEC second team Monday, and I have that same faith in Tilmon.

Matt Antonic: Dru Smith. He has a very good chance to have the best season for a Missouri point guard since Jordan Clarkson.

Collin Griffith: For me, that player is Tray Jackson. The freshman is long, athletic and explosive with a ceiling that goes through, well, the ceiling. The biggest question is how long it takes Jackson to get there. He’ll have growing pains for sure, but as the season progresses and he can find his footing, he has the ability to become a major contributor down the stretch.

It’s not a Q&A without a prediction. Go ahead and give us your predicted record and tell us where Missouri is at year’s end.

Sam Snelling: I’m going to cheat and just link to this: SEC Basketball Preview: #6 Missouri Tigers.

Matthew Harris: After some wavering, I’ll go with 19-12 overall, 10-8 in the SEC, and a seventh or eighth place finish in the standings. We projected them sixth, but that’s felt a little too optimistic to me — even after going through and picking the result of every SEC game.

When March arrives, I think they’ll wind up in the bubble conversation. However, bear in mind that coaching and roster churn has left the SEC in a state of flux. It’s still a quality conference, but that’s because there are a lot of teams facing the same questions as MU. I wouldn’t be shocked if it only earned six bids. Ideally, the league nabs seven of them, and the Tigers punch a ticket as a nine- or 10-seed.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Nashville
Cuonzo Martin could take Missouri to its second NCAA Tournament in three seasons.
Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Josh Matejka: When I submitted my SEC picks for Sam’s previews, I think I had Missouri at 13-5 in conference, which is much too high. I think Missouri grabs 10 wins in both non-con and conference play, putting them at 20-11 headed into the SEC Tournament. I think that puts them squarely on the “should be in” side of the bubble, though a win or two in Nashville wouldn’t hurt anything.

Ryan Herrera: Missouri will finish 20-11 and 10-8 in SEC play, which will be good enough for an NCAA Tournament berth as about a No. 10 seed.

Matt Antonic: 24-11, with SEC and NCAA tournament wins. I know. It’s an extremely optimistic prediction, but I am bullish on the potential of this year’s team. The non-conference schedule sets up nicely, and the Tigers have the depth to go through conference play. Missouri is in the NCAA field when March rolls around.

Collin Griffith: I’m predicting a 20-win season for the Tigers. 20-11 (11-7 SEC). I think this team has the talent to surprise a lot of people, and while I don’t think they will beat the Floridas and Kentuckys in the SEC, they can certainly contend with the rest of the conference. Winning 20 games is more reality than fantasy and could earn the Tigers a seed in the NCAA Tournament.