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Mizzou Hoops is counting on its point guards to put them over the top

Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith sparked a minor offensive revolution late last season. Can they carry it into another year?

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Can I get a little intro music?

Just cashing in all my millennial chips right up top.

I digress — it’s (basically) basketball season, y’all! Missouri is suiting up in less than two weeks to kick off the assuredly weird 2020-2021 season. We’re pretty sure they’ll be playing Oral Roberts — just like we were pretty sure Missouri would be playing Georgia this weekend! — and we’ve yet to know the rest of the non-conference schedule. Did I mention we were less than two weeks out from the season? 2020!

Missouri is entering its fourth year of the Cuonzo Martin regime and is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2019-2020 in which preseason tournament hopes were dashed by a sub-.500 record and the cancellation of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite finishing the season 97th in KenPom, the Tigers have vaulted up to 58th in the preseason rankings this year, likely due to the fact that the vast majority of Missouri’s roster is returning. The Tigers enter the season experienced, deep and full of hope once more.

Every year, we do a series of previews breaking down the position groups on Missouri’s roster, asking the masthead various questions such as what to expect and areas of play to watch. Today, we’re kicking off our series with an examination of Missouri’s point guards: Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson, who led a minor revolution with their uptick in offensive production late last year; and Drew Buggs, the graduate transfer from Hawaii.

The Players

2019-2020 Statistical Profile

Players Drew Buggs (Grad.)* Dru Smith (R-Sr.) Xavier Pinson (Jr.)
Players Drew Buggs (Grad.)* Dru Smith (R-Sr.) Xavier Pinson (Jr.)
Minutes % 86.8 81.3 59.3
Effective FG % 40.5 45.4 44.5
True Shooting % 43.2 54.4 52
Off. Reb. % 2.9 4.6 3.1
Def. Reb. % 12.9 10.7 10.8
Assist Rate 30.5 27.1 27.8
Turnover Rate 21.2 21.5 22.2
Steal % 1.5 3.8 1.9
Fouls Created/40 min. 2.7 3.7 4.3
Fouls Drawn/40 min. 2.9 4.8 5.8
* - Played 2019-2020 season at the University of Hawaii

The Preview

Down the home stretch of the 2019-2020 season, Cuonzo Martin gave the keys to the offense to Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson — and Missouri experienced a small revolution as a result. Should Tiger fans expect that uptick in production to translate to a full season?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: This is a loaded question, because it asks us to extrapolate a small sample size into a full season. And really what we’re asking is if Missouri is as good as it looked in that final stretch of the ‘19-’20 season. Maybe! Maybe not! We’ll see.

What we can expect, however, is some more clarity now that the team has seemingly redirected its focus in the offseason. Last year’s offense seemed predicated on replicating the “successes” of the previous year — working through Tilmon out of the block and putting up good three-point shooting numbers. Neither of those things clicked, as Tilmon was injured and the three-point shooting cratered. Now, however, Missouri knows it can run its offense through two point guards who are gifted at getting to the basket and distributing.

On the whole, the question that looms over the offense is the same one that looms over the roster et al: Can the Tigers stay healthy? If so, they’ve got an offensive system they can build and improve upon. If either Smith or Pinson goes down, Missouri is likely scrambling for answers like last year.

Jacob Giancola, Lead Basketball Beat Writer: With where the team currently stands, I think Mizzou fans should expect another year on the bubble of making the tournament. Cuonzo Martin has failed to have a record above .500 for two consecutive years now, and this year’s team is basically a carbon copy of last years. The good news is that this team has a lot of experience. Xavier Pinson is now a junior and Drew Smith is redshirt senior. The question, though, is can we expect these two to lead a team in to March? I have to play the pessimist here and say no. History tends to repeat itself, and I’m not convinced these two have the fire power to carry this team dancing.

Kortay Vincent, Basketball Beat Writer: I think the Tigers will see continued success if Pinson and Smith remain the focal points of the offense. The Tigers were much better down the stretch than their record at the end of the year, and I think they have a legitimate chance to make the tournament again. I could honestly see Pinson take another step forward, too. Dru Smith will likely not progress much more, but he will still be vital to the success of this team. I think that there is a good chance if both stay healthy that the Tigers can make the tournament with a lot of experience and Cuonzo needing a trip to the dance for his job security. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I consider myself a realist, and more times than not, teams with experience perform well and make runs to the tournament. Let’s hope an experienced backcourt will do just that.

Mizzou went hard after grad transfers in the offseason, and ended up landing Drew Buggs out of Hawaii. How does Buggs fit in to a team that already has two well-established point guards?

Twitter: @MizzouHoops

Josh Matejka: Believe it or not, there’s at least a decent chance Buggs gets just as many minutes as either Dru Smith or Xavier Pinson. During his senior season at Hawaii, Buggs was a rock for the Rainbow Warriors, gobbling up nearly 87 percent of available minutes. He wasn’t exactly flashy in any sort of way — despite not fouling a ton, he’s not a notably pesky defender, nor is he a particularly threatening offensive presence. But Buggs defers and creates better than anyone else on Missouri’s roster, and that’s why he’ll work. With Smith and Pinson as the suspected drivers of the Missouri’s offense, someone needs to come in and be the engineer that keeps the wheels turning. Buggs, and his 30+ assist percentage can do just that, freeing up the other point guards to focus on getting to the hoop.

Jacob Giancola: It’s difficult to say exactly how well Buggs will play in to Cuonzo’s system. As a graduate student, you expect a bit of experience to come along with Buggs, which hopefully will translate well onto the hardwood. I could see Buggs getting the start right away or coming off the bench as a sixth-man. Either way, Mizzou’s depth chart just got a little deeper. Buggs also recorded a lower effective field goal and true shooting percentage last year than either Pinson or Smith.

Kortay Vincent: I think Buggs’ addition is huge for this years team for two reasons, experience and depth. He adds even more experience to an already experienced team, and as I said earlier, teams with experience usually perform well in March. Second, he adds major depth. Now if the Tigers were to sustain an injury at the guard spot, Buggs will be able to slide right in and provide great support. As for where he fits in the rotation, I don’t know. I figure Cuonzo will go with the guys that have been in the program for a while, and Buggs will come off the bench. However, all of that is subject to change as the season moves on.

We like to be reasonable and analytical here at Rock M Nation, but we don’t want to get too cautious because, hey, where’s the fun in that? Give us one bold prediction for each of the Tiger point guards in the 2020-2021 season.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Matejka: Drew Buggs will shoot over 33 percent from three-point range. That may not seem great, but consider that he hasn’t hit from over 31.7 percent in his career, and hasn’t topped 27.6 percent since 2018. With the offensive pressure off, Buggs can focus on getting open jumpers from deep — and the staff has apparently liked his jumper this offseason. Even a number like 33 percent will force defenses to respect his shot, opening up the offense as a result.

Dru Smith will make an All SEC team. He had a case last year, but he wasn’t able to put up the flashy numbers that could have sealed it — his dip in three-point shooting likely didn’t help either. But Smith is a great player who does everything well for the Tigers, and the team is building to play around his strengths. His assist rate will tick up, as will his scoring. Combined with his sturdy defense, I wouldn’t put it past Smith to find his name on any of the all conference rosters by the end of the year.

Xavier Pinson will lead the Tigers in scoring and post an effective field goal percentage above 50. That’s not an outstanding number by any means, but you also have to take into account that X is (A) a volume scorer and (B) not a fantastic jump shooter. He has, however, improved his free throw shooting, which suggests he has room for growth. Leading the Tigers in scoring may not look like some of the other sexy scoring numbers around the league — this is still a Cuonzo Martin team after all — but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him scratching 15 points a game by season’s end.

Jacob Giancola: I’m predicting that Xavier Pinson is going to step up his defensive game dramatically this year and lead the team in steals. I think transitioning to an upperclassmen boasts a players confidence and leadership roles and I think it will translate to Pinson having an outstanding year defensively.

Additionally, I believe Dru Smith is going to have another good year, but I’m saying he’s going to bump up his scoring numbers a little bit. I expect him to average around 16 points a game this year, which is more compared to last year’s 12.5. That’s assuming he is healthy enough to start every game again.

Lastly we have the new Drew, Drew Buggs. I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about this man’s ability on the basketball court, but I’m going to predict he leads the entire team in assists averaged per game. A grad student on his last leg comes to a new school to prove his worth. He’s either a bust or a badass.

Kortay Vincent: My bold prediction for Xavier Pinson is that he will make All-SEC. I think down the stretch last year he proved just how valuable he was to this team and gained experience as the focal point of the offense. With this confidence, I think he will come out and prove that he is one of the better guards in the SEC.

My bold prediction for Dru Smith is that he will shoot 35% from 3 this year. Last year he was under 30, but in 50 games at Evansville, he shot 41%. I thin that a return to form is due for Smith, and we will see him develop as one of the most reliable 3 point shooters on this year’s team.

Drew Buggs will lead the team in assists while coming off the bench a majority of the time. He is the all time leading assist man at Hawaii, and I expect him to pick up right where he left off. However, I think that without injury he will likely come off the bench a majority of the time. The bar isn’t too high at Mizzou to lead the team in assists, and I think Buggs will come in and make instant impact as a playmaker with the second unit.