With the 2019-2020 roster set, we’re closing in on the 100 day mark until Missouri basketball is back. We’ve spent the summer debating the best rotation... so give us your ideal top eight.
Sam Snelling, Site Manager: The loaded word here is ‘ideal’. Because what’s ideal is whatever gets you to the most wins. But is what gets you to the most wins this season best for the long term health and development of the program? The Missouri roster is young with Reed Nikko being the only senior. Because of that, it’ll be interesting to see the battle from 6 through 12, as it looks like there’s a bit of fluidity there.
That said... Dru Smith starts, Mark Smith — if healthy — is at the top with him, and of course Jeremiah Tilmon. Those are the top three fixtures for this team, then behind them I think Torrence Watson and Javon Pickett get the most minutes. Xavier Pinson makes six, with Tray Jackson likely fitting in somewhere. It’s the last spot which is the toughest.
My best guess right now is Martin keeps it youthful and we see either Kobe Brown or Mario McKinney at eight. Right now I lean towards Brown because he’s the most fixed product of the freshmen, a skilled big forward who can handle the ball and pass. If he comes in with a defensive mindset early I think he captures very solid minutes in the rotation.
Matt Harris, Basketball Editor: Given that it’s late June, my view is fluid. At this point, I’m reasonably confident about six names: Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson and Jeremiah Tilmon. We could bat around who starts on the wing, but I think Pickett and Watson are ensconced in the rotation. So, what we have is five players jostling for two spots and a pair of positional conundrums.
First, who backs up Tilmon? Right now, the incumbent gets the nod. That’s Reed Nikko. Next, there are arguably four players jostling for minutes at combo forward: Mitchell Smith, Parker Braun, Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown. Despite signs of life in the SEC tournament, history and data hint that Smith’s trajectory isn’t plotting an ascent. If he can remain a program guy and an asset in hosting recruits, there’s value. In Brown’s case, his intriguing skillset overlaps with commodities MU already has — ball-handling and jump-shooting — in spades on the perimeter. For now, I give the nod to Jackson, who can still play on the perimeter and switch defensively but still has a longer track-record of defending players on the block.
The wild card in all of this: Mario McKinney Jr. I’ve maintained he can slide into a niche as a pesky defender and weapon in transition. It’s just a matter of how the Vashon product earns minutes — and whom he siphons them from.
Josh Matejka, Editor: I still think the idea of getting to a top eight is a little too idealistic. I’m not sure the talent is there quite yet to fully rely on eight players, and I think it’s more likely nine guys will separate themselves as the go-to rotation. However, eight is the prompt, so eight it shall be!
It’s pretty easy to nail the top six right off the bat: Dru and Mark Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon and last year’s freshman trio of Watson, Pickett and Pinson. So you’re left with Nikko, Okongo, Smith, Braun, Brown, Jackson and McKinney to take up those last two spots.
Since we’re focusing on our ideal top eight, I’m going to have to go with Jackson and Okongo. The former is a freshman with high upside who, if he’s separating himself as one of the team’s top eight players, could be a potential difference maker down low. He’ll certainly take some of the pressure off of Tilmon. As for Okongo — it’s purely an upside pick. Reed Nikko is one of my favorite player of the last five years simply because of how reliable and steady he is, but Nikko is also not a 7-foot rim runner with athleticism that’s talked about in hushed tones as being pretty freakish. If Okongo is getting regular minutes, you can be sure that Missouri is probably closing in on its ceiling.
Every year there’s at least one player who fans don’t expect to contribute but ends up becoming a vital piece of the roster puzzle. Who’s that guy this year?
Sam Snelling: I’m going to cheat a little and go with two guys. I’ve talked enough about Kobe Brown and what I can see his role being with his skill level. Maybe people won’t be surprised if I keep talking about it, but the reality is there isn’t much reason to think Brown will crack the rotation right now. He’s a mid-level 3-star prospect who seems to play a position where Missouri already has a lot of bodies. But then again Cuonzo Martin took his recruitment personally and for a reason. I’m guessing at this point Brown has the necessary skill set to succeed early.
My cheat here is I actually think we could see some help from Parker Braun. Braun needed an offseason to work on his body, and I’m still not convinced he’s physically ready to be everything Missouri fans want him to be. That being said, I think he’ll be a lot closer to the 8th man than maybe the 13th. That might not be a sparkling endorsement, but Mitchell Smith played about 9th man minutes last year and had some moments. I wouldn’t be surprised if Braun usurped Smith for those minutes this season. Like I said above, the fluidity between 6 and 12 is going to be interesting to watch.
Matt Harris: I’ll take Axel Okongo to potentially displace Reed Nikko. Admittedly, this isn’t a bold or daring take, but it reflects the state of play in Columbia.
Only a handful of SEC programs have a level of roster continuity comparable to Mizzou, and Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M changed coaches. Consider, too, that four likely members of the Tigers’ rotation — Tilmon, Nikko, Dru Smith and Mark Smith — own at least two years of Division I experience. And the program’s three sophomores sopped up plenty of minutes last season, giving MU seven experienced hands as materials for its rotation. Could a returner be elbowed out? Sure. But the blueprint for this program is one that calls for a veteran core of skilled, multi-positional talents. Assuming Martin’s rebuild is on schedule, there shouldn’t be too many surprises.
After last season’s struggles at combo forward, the emergence of Tray Jackson or Kobe Brown wouldn’t leave you floored. If McKinney elbowed his way into the mix for minutes, would you be shocked? Almost by default, our remaining options are Okongo, Mitchell Smith and Parker Braun. To me, Okongo’s physically ready to contribute. Meanwhile, his game — rim runs, rolling hard to the bucket and dump offs in the corner — could be a better stylistic fit. Toss in his potential as a rim protector, and you get a rough approximation of what Tilmon brings to the fold.
Josh Matejka: The beauty of this year’s roster is there are quite a few players that could end up filling this role, but at this point I’m pretty high on Mario McKinney Jr. It feels like he’s been cast off into the, “energy guy, but not rotation ready,” sphere by most fans, but his strengths as a player fit what Cuonzo Martin usually likes from young players. McKinney is a hard worker whose athletic prowess will help speed the defensive transition from high school to college. Given what we saw from Pickett and Watson last year, we know Martin values defensive reliability over offensive potential, so McKinney should have every opportunity to carve out a role early. Does that mean he’ll be a top eight rotation guy? Not necessarily, but a potential lock down defender off the bench could make a difference in a young SEC.
It seems fair to say most fans are cautiously optimistic about a return to the NCAA Tournament this year. Name three things that need to happen for that to become reality.
Sam Snelling: I look at specific guys taking the steps we hope they can take this year, and I think maybe the biggest key to the season is Torrence Watson. We know what Mark Smith is capable of; if he takes another step forward, great. We know what Jeremiah Tilmon is capable of; if he takes another step forward, great. And the expectations on Dru Smith are heavy enough to think he can be an efficient offensive weapon. But if Missouri gets the late season version of Torrence Watson this year, a guy capable of shooting over 40% from deep and averaging over 12 ppg while playing solid defense, I think that makes the Tigers very dangerous.
Aside from Torrence, Missouri has to get non-negative production from the four spot. Either Brown, Jackson, Braun, or Smith need to provide something from that spot. And the above mentioned progress from Tilmon? If Jeremiah can stay on the floor for longer stretches of time, just his presence will make Missouri much, much tougher to beat.
Matt Harris: Take these as given: Cuonzo Martin’s team will defend and rebound. In eight seasons at the high-major level, his squads have an average finish of 45.8 in adjusted defensive efficiency and 50.9 in defensive rebounding, according to KenPom data. Those traits will matter in a season where roster turnover has the SEC trending young and a spate of new coaching hires have programs in flux. A roster with a modicum of experience, defensive tenacity and the capability to control tempo isn’t glossy, but Martin’s career has proven it sets the floor at .500 in league play.
The ceiling for MU is raised or lowered by how smoothly and consistently the Tigers execute offensively. No, the scheme doesn’t need wholesale changes. Instead, three tasks that can get the desired result.
- Does the pace get perky: It’s a common refrain you hear when a coach takes over a new job: We’re going to play fast. Martin espoused a strain of this thinking when he took the job in Columbia. Yet you can argue MU’s glacial tempo was a necessary adaptation. Injuries and transfers depleted his first roster, while last season’s group skewed young. Toss in a lack of proven ball-handlers, and you can see why MU didn’t want to make games into track meets. The third iteration of the Tigers, though, should have the optimal blend of depth and experience to finish with 70 possessions per night consistently.
- Curb Turnovers: Now, if MU’s not going to throttle up the pace, it must covet every possession. No, I don’t think the Tigers will consistently rank in the top-50 nationally for turnover percentage, but merely getting back to the average for Martin-coached teams (No. 121) would suffice. On paper, Mizzou could have a deadly spot-up duo in Watson and Mark Smith, while Tilmon is arguably among the SEC’s best-returning bigs. And assuming Dru Smith is as advertised, Martin has four cogs he can turn to offensively. Valuing the ball and maximizing each trip down the floor is vital.
- Get to the Rim: Assessing MU’s performance has frequently boiled down to a simple matter of whether the Tigers canned enough 3-pointers. While jump-shooting is a skill, offenses that rely heavily on it are prone to volatile swings. And in theory, knocking down jumpers and spreading shooters makes it easier to play downhill by opening up wider gaps and luring bigs out of the paint. Not for MU, which ranked 240th nationally in shots taken from point-blank range and 328th in efficiency on those possessions last season, according to Synergy Sports. Oh, and the Tigers had one of the nation’s lowest free-throw rates on rim attacks. What sticks out is how Martin describes this crop of freshmen. In his words, each can “go make a play.” Translated: They can put the ball on the deck, get downhill and complete tough finishes at the cup — or at the very least get to the line.
Taken together, a Missouri offense that fits jump-shooting into a style that plays a little faster, a little cleaner and generates more point-blank scoring is one that can go dancing in March.
Josh Matejka: First, the Tigers need to clean up their turnover issues. The first step is swapping out Jordan Geist for Dru Smith, but other regulars — Jeremiah Tilmon and Xavier Pinson especially — have still been prone to coughing up the ball. Efficiency is the key to winning Cuonzo Martin basketball and there’s nothing less efficient than a possession that doesn’t end at the basket. The youth of the SEC will make turnovers a fairly regular occurrence, and a team that can avoid that can grab an easy advantage in climbing its way to the top.
Second, keep Jeremiah Tilmon on the floor. This obviously falls on the big man’s shoulders, and he needs to learn how to channel his aggressive style into more productive minutes. But I also think the team (and coaches) can help him out a little bit. The potential of having a Tray Jackson or Torrence Watson ready to dive to the basket and bail Tilmon out of double-teams is tantilizing, as is the thought of Tilmon kicking the ball out to any of several deadly shooters on the perimeter. However, those hopes don’t become reality unless guys like Jackson and Watson develop that instinct. And while the Smith’s have both proven they can be consistent three-point threats, players like Pickett, Pinson and even Watson (to some degree) need to be more consistent in their hit rate.
Finally, and this is a much more amorphous idea, but Missouri has to avoid the long scoring droughts. How many times have we seen the Tigers fall victim to a drought that lets a demoralized team find its footing or prevents them from climbing back into a winnable game? Martin’s preferred style of ball (and Missouri’s three-point proficiency) will keep them in a lot of games. But outside of Jordan Geist, the Tigers haven’t been able to find a a player in the past few years that will go get a basket when a basket is needed. Whether that’s a next-level Torrence Watson, a foul-averse Jeremiah Tilmon or any number of players, Missouri needs to be able to stem the tide when the going gets rough by finding some way — any way — to put points on the board.