With a lackluster 15-17 record last season (and a... not great 5-13 in the SEC), the Missouri basketball program may have left a slightly sour taste in the mouths of fans that lasted the offseason. But with the first official practice of the 2019-20 season underway Wednesday, Missouri Head Coach Cuonzo Martin and his players spoke about turning the page on last season, and why this season can be different.
With the addition of three freshmen— Kobe Brown, Tray Jackson and Mario McKinney Jr., the eligibility of Evansville transfer Dru Smith, and the addition of Junior College big man Axel Okongo, Martin’s squad hopes to make major improvements and secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think this team has all the parts, minus any major injuries,” said Martin. “Because I think that (if) you lose key guys, that can change a lot for your program. (They need to) just keep doing what they’re doing right now, I like what they’re doing, I like what I see now.”
When asked about the culture of the program, Martin noted, “They do a good job of holding each other accountable because I think that’s where we’re trying to get to in a program... get guys to understand that we have to hold each other accountable in the locker room and not be afraid to take constructive criticism.”
Martin made it sound like the pieces could be falling into the place for the Tigers. With loads of returning production and highly sought-after recruits in the mix, it’s understandable why there’s hope for an NCAA tournament berth. It’ll simply take heart, determination and a bunch of tallies in the W column to make it happen.
Freshman Trio Impresses Martin
“I think the freshmen made a lot of progress from the time they got here in June up until now,” he said. “All three of those guys bring something different to the table and all of those guys have the ability to play from day one.”
Martin said he can picture Kobe Brown playing at every spot on the court.
“At 6’ 7 ½, 240 pounds, he gets downhill on you, he’s tough to guard.” Martin continued, “We have to do a good job of taking advantage of who’s defending him because I just think it’s hard for traditional big guys to defend him. He can pass and make decisions; he can attack the rim.”
And where is Brown most comfortable playing?
“Anywhere,” he said, “I just want to win.”
Martin praised Mario McKinney Jr.’s speed and athleticism. “Has a better shot than I thought. He doesn’t shoot a lot from the perimeter. He’ll shoot when he’s open, but he’s so fast at getting to the rim, so he creates a lot of advantages attacking downhill.”
He shared similar approval for Tray Jackson.
“You know, 6’8, he can shoot the ball, long, athletic,” said Martin.
Smith, Pinson battle it out at Point Guard
Martin admitted that the battle for the point guard position mainly is between Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith. “One of the reasons why I think Dru and X are playing so well is because they go against each other, they push each other,” he said.
He spoke about transfer Dru Smith’s ability not only to score, but to contribute through rebounds, assists and steals. “If he led us in scoring, I wouldn’t be surprised. If he was fifth on the team in scoring, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Martin said. “Just because he does so many other things, I think that’s where his value is. He’s a complete basketball player.”
Martin said he has seen Pinson grow as a leader this offseason, an area where he needed improvement.
“Just the accountability of doing your job as a point guard, understanding what it means for everybody to get involved. It’s almost like you’re the last guy to eat,” Martin said. “His last five days, I think he’s probably been as good as I’ve seen him.”
Pinson emanates a fighting spirit and is locked in for the coming season.
“On the floor or off the floor, I just want to win, get to the tournament and do whatever we can to do that,” he said. Pinson said he saw himself mature in the offseason by getting in the gym every day and putting his time into basketball rather than anything else.
- Martin announced the Tigers would be playing with four guards and one forward more frequently. He expressed confidence in his team’s shooting ability with the formation. “I think in most cases, we’ll have four guards on the floor that can consistently hit threes, and if you put Mitchell Smith at the five, you have five guys on the court that can.”
- Mark Smith is still healing from offseason surgery to correct an injury he suffered midway through last season. Martin said Smith is able to participate in individual workouts and shooting, but has not been cleared for five on five action. “I’ve been making a lot of progress and I’m almost there to get back to 100%. I’m feeling better everyday,” said Smith.
- Jeremiah Tilmon’s foul trouble last season was an issue of concern. Martin believes that Tilmon has the ability to clean up his play. “He’s been a dominant presence,” said Martin. “He defends in practice without fouling, he did it a lot last year without fouling. But again, it’s just when the lights come on, the focus level has to be heightened.”
- Junior post Axel Okongo officially has one year of eligibility left, but the Tigers are working on getting him a second year. The waiver from the NCAA is still outstanding.