As I was putting together the Sunday morning post, some news trickled across my Twitter timeline: Duquesne transfer Eric Williams Jr. committed to Oregon.
With that, Mizzou saw a name fall off its already sparse recruiting board.
My immediate reaction was surprise. In my head, it made sense. Williams went to a beautiful place with his mom, and Oregon put on a show. The list of schools capable of inducing shock and awe is small, but Oregon is probably near the top. Nike pours money into Eugene the way I invest in whiskey. While I’m sure Phil Knight’s collection is far extensive than mine, I’m sure it brings us each equal joy.
When you step back and assess each team’s roster, William’s decision makes sense. There’s a degree of fluctuation in Ducks coach Dana Altman’s program right now that’s opened up a more abundant supply of minutes than the sophomore might find in Columbia.
Still, the choice leaves a mark.
If you look at the breakdown of the Tigers’ roster, Mizzou needed a high-level rebounding wing that can also shoot it. Once Williams came onto the market, MU moved quickly, offering an instant connection with assistant coach Cornell Mann and the contours of a clear role.
And MU missed.
So it comes to this question: What are Cuonzo Martin and Mizzou basketball doing with recruiting?
In the near term, MU’s list of demands isn’t extensive. With Jeremiah Tilmon returning, there’s reasonable depth at every position — enough to generate some excitement in a season where the SEC looks to be in flux. Ideally, Mark Smith and Torrence Watson take another step forward, while Javon Pickett and Xavier Pinson display more consistency. If Dru Smith and Mario McKinney plug in cleanly, you can see the outline of an NCAA tournament team.
But with the outline above there have been some recruiting wins, coupled with some very obvious recruiting misses.
Let’s be very clear: I don’t blame Martin and his staff for missing out on Courtney Ramey, or even E.J. Liddell. That’s life when other elite programs like Ohio State or Texas enter the fray. The same logic applies to Mizzou’s recruiting board in the Class of 2020. In recent weeks, top targets in Cam’Ron Fletcher and Caleb Love have started drawing the attention of blue-blood suitors.
On Tuesday, for example, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski swung through St. Louis and dropped in on both those targets. Fletcher’s already taken an official visit to Michigan State, and Kentucky has reportedly touched base. Meanwhile, Love is in regular contact with North Carolina and Louisville, with Cards coach Chris Mack expected to visit Wednesday.
So far, Martin’s pulled out every stop to demonstrate to both guards that they’re priorities in Columbia. But if Martin can’t reel in either of them, it will also be hard to get worked up. Any kid gets googly eyes when Coach K walks through their door. Meanwhile, Mizzou’s still trying to establish an identity and a measure of consistency. Even though Martin is a well-known coach, he’s not at that level right now.
While it’s still early in the grassroots season, we also have a rudimentary sense of what the board looks like for the Tigers. The list will surely expand in the coming weeks, but you can see that, at least for now, the trio of Love, Fletcher and Josh Christopher loom large. Two players have also fallen off the chart. Jalen Terry committed to Michigan State, and Corey Walker pledged to Tennessee.
Missouri Basketball Recruiting | Class of 2020 Offers
|Moses Moody||6-5/185||Wing||North Little Rock||AR||26||14.8||5.3||1||40||27.3||83.3||47.1|
|Caleb Love||6-3/175||CG||St. Louis||MO||33||19.5||3.5||5||52.9||50||78.9||65.7|
|Cam'Ron Fletcher||6-6/190||Wing||St. Louis||MO||42||12||7.5||1.8||45.2||10||60||49.4|
|Scooby Johnson||6-6/180||Wing||Benton Harbor||MI||129||18.5||4||3||52.9||27.8||53.6||58.4|
|Luke Kasubke||6-6/175||Wing||St. Louis||MO||196||12.8||4.3||2||46.5||33.3||50||55.9|
|Davion Bradford||6-10/240||Post||St. Louis||MO||NR||5||3.7||0||77.8||0||33.3||72.7|
|Ryan Kalkbrenner||7-0/210||Post||St. Louis||MO||NR||9.5||7||1.2||54.2||0||84.6||63.9|
Meanwhile, it’s clear now that some of the staff’s projections haven’t quite hit the mark. K.J. Santos was a reach and a bust at this level. We wish him the best, but Santos injuries zapped his athleticism, and he just looked utterly misplaced this past year in spot minutes. Christian Guess was a huge question mark when he was signed last fall, and he flamed out after seven minutes and barely a semester under his belt.
Moving forward, you also have to wonder if Javon Pickett’s body will hold up against the rigors of the SEC. As the season played out, it looked the Belleville East product wore down and flatlined with a back injury towards the end. And Xavier Pinson’s consistency has been a concern.
Maybe the light switch went on for Pinson late, the same way it looked like it went on for Watson. If Mark Smith is healthy, MU can count on production from the junior at combo guard. Yet there are enough open questions that it’s fair to wonder whether Martin’s invested too much faith in this core group of 10 players — enough that he might fill two scholarships with walk-ons Parker Braun and Ronnie Suggs. Those two guys appear to be hard workers but don’t offer the same level of play a graduate transfer might.
The plan has to start working next year
We seem to be placing a fair amount of weight on the shoulders of Evansville transfer Dru Smith, freshman combo forward Tray Jackson, and the health of a small group of players.
I have no doubt Missouri wanted Williams and saw him as an excellent fit for what they are trying to do, but they missed. In recent days, reports indicated they’ve met with Kobe Brown, who took an official visit last fall before committing to Texas A&M. (Brown received a release after Aggies coach Billy Kennedy was fired.) Myron Gardner is also available, but a source told Rock M Nation late last week the wing out of Detroit had yet to visit Columbia. In both cases, people around each prospect have largely gone quiet.
I like Gardner as a prospect. He’s highly athletic and a guy with a developing offensive game. In the meantime, he seems like he’d be willing to accept a reserve role that puts a premium on defending and rebounding. I can buy into using a scholarship on him because those who’ve scouted Gardner think his best basketball is in front of him.
What about Brown? I’m not as confident. We only have slickly produced highlight videos to use as a guide, film that may not give a real sense of the player Brown is at the moment. One suggested he was a combo guard, which isn’t really true. He’s a combo forward. Determining a player’s position comes down to this: you are who you can guard. Brown doesn’t appear to have the lateral quickness or overall athleticism to defense a primary ball-handler.
However, Martin seems bought in on him, so I’ll defer in that he knows what he’s looking for and has seen more than what I’ve caught on a cut-up video on YouTube.
Still, what is the end goal with this last scholarship if that’s the last one they give out this year? A role filler? Just another spot taken up while still keeping an eye on taking three or four prospects in 2020?
Martin has said he wants to give preference toward local products, which is why someone like Gardner makes more sense over Brown, who hails from Alabama. At the very least, Gardner has Jackson and Mann, and Michigan is far more regional than Alabama — even if you account for the SEC’s footprint. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of Brown, but I’m merely asking what the point is?
When Santos transferred, I talked a little at length about how I saw Martin approaching the roster and his belief in using 10 players. Theoretically, that makes sense, but we’ve seen in Martin’s first two years how injuries can scramble sensible plans and whittle the rotation to six or seven bodies.
In 2018, it was Kassius Robertson, Kevin Puryear, Jordan Geist, Michael Porter Jr., Jontay Porter, Jeremiah Tilmon, Reed Nikko, and Brett Rau in the last game. Martin started Tilmon, Jontay, and Puryear, along with Geist and Robertson. The team was thin and running on fumes, and they got blasted by Florida State to finish the season.
This past year it was Geist, Watson, Pinson, Mitchell Smith, Tilmon, Puryear, Pickett, and Nikko in the final game. Nikko played just nine minutes. Pickett was hobbled and played an unproductive 25. Against Auburn in the SEC tournament, the rotation was basically pared down to six.
No one questioned the grit of the Tigers in either game. They just simply didn’t have the personnel, and those they had on hand weren’t ready for the roles they were tasked. The Tigers weren’t that far off from resembling an NCAA tournament team last season, and they head into next season in far better shape. Assuming they avoid a major injury, the potential rotation is one that most people would be happy with.
But where do they go if the depth takes a hit?
This past year Mizzou might have been better off finding a good fit as a grad transfer or something similar instead of taking a flyer on Guess. And I can’t help but wonder if we’ll be rehashing the same conversation this time a year from now.
The last thing I want to say is that only Martin truly knows his board, and we can’t see it. He knows what his team has this year, and I’ve heard from people connected to the program the staff is quietly confident in the team they have next season. I’m excited for this upcoming season in a lot of ways, but I think some anxiety felt amongst the fan base would fade if we knew a little more about the plan for the spring of 2019.
The problem is we don’t.