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Missouri will try to defy expectations with a deep roster full of experience

Previewing the No. 6 team in the SEC, the Missouri Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

They’ve already played, but here we go. There is absolutely no doubt the program under Cuonzo Martin has been dealt a difficult hand. Since moving to Columbia in 2017, Martin has endured a list of injuries which have greatly impeded the progress of a rebuild once thought to be patched with the addition of Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter. But both Porters went down to injuries taking them out of the rotation for basically the entire season in year one and year two. Then last year, trying to have a reset from the Porter era, Martin’s team struggled on the court and with health. All in all, it’s been a difficult rebuild, and although the program is in much better shape than when Martin was hired, a lot seems to be riding on this season due to the experience and potential roster turnover they face once things wrap up.


Previous SEC Previews

Mizzou Preview

#6 Missouri Tigers

Last Season: 15-16 (7-11 in conference) No. 97 KenPom

My Prediction: 15-9 (10-8, 6th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 10th in conference

KenPom Projection: 14-11 (9-9 in conference) No. 54

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Illinois Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Cuonzo Martin | 4th Season, 51-46

Cuonzo Martin has an interesting reputation around college basketball. He’s widely admired by his peers, routinely praised for his game planning as well as his general reputation as a human being. But vocal fanbases have generally had altering opinions on Martin, when he was all but chased out of Tennessee. But Martin is an earnest man, determined, and seemingly calm under the pressure. As his teams struggled on the floor, he was steady in his leadership. In a tumultuous offseason, the Tigers program stayed quiet and connected. Some players tested the waters of the NBA Draft, but everyone is back. Martin has gotten his team to buy in, and is just hoping for a break after three seasons of taking it on the chin.

Seat Temp: COOL

Mizzou preview 10 year

Most college fans are good at having a selective memory about the program they support. But it really wasn’t that long ago when things were going quite well for Mizzou. 10 years ago was the tail end of the Mike Anderson era, a six year stretch which put Missouri back on the national map. Frank Haith took over and had a couple really good seasons before slipping a bit and then disaster set in. Martin has helped the program rebound, but they’re still not close to where they were in that stretch from Mike Anderson to Haith. The issue for Missouri is the most prominent memory for a lot of recruits in the state is the 2014-2017, and the rebuild hasn’t gone as smooth as hoped. But a good season could begin to set things right.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Reed Nikko graduation 30 37.60% 7.11% 9.17% 6.13%
Tray Jackson transfer 26 16.80% 3.65% 2.85% 3.86%
Mario McKinney transfer 7 4.72% 0.86% 0.51% 1.11%
Axel Okongo transfer 8 2.40% 0.24% 0.16% 0.19%
12.30% 11.86% 12.69% 11.29%

I think you could have a very long write up just talking about the kind of kid Reed Nikko is. He was never a fixture of the offense, and only found himself a starter late as a senior when Jeremiah Tilmon got hurt. But Nikko filled in admirably, sometimes exceptionally. He was a 4-year stalwart in a program somewhat bereft of players who stick around.

Many Mizzou fans were saddened at the losses of both Mario McKinney, Jr and Tray Jackson. Both came in as highly rated players, but neither could find their way into the regular rotation for a variety of reasons, and both left via transfer. McKinney was gone at semester and is currently at John A. Logan Junior College, and Jackson left in the spring for Seton Hall. Axel Okongo also left and transferred to Eastern Michigan University after not playing much last year.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Dru Smith SR PG 31 81.52% 18.89% 55.10% 18.57%
Xavier Pinson JR CG 31 59.44% 16.53% 52.70% 16.91%
Mark Smith SR CG 24 51.36% 11.48% 56.20% 9.75%
Jeremiah Tilmon SR POST 17 27.04% 6.68% 61.80% 6.43%
Javon Pickett JR WING 31 66.88% 9.85% 44.90% 10.99%
Kobe Brown SO CF 30 43.52% 8.36% 50.00% 8.73%
Mitchell Smith R-SR CF 30 52.56% 7.35% 48.40% 6.96%
Torrence Watson JR WING 31 41.84% 6.87% 43.40% 7.80%
Parker Braun R-SO CF 24 11.36% 1.59% 70.20% 1.44%
Evan Yerkes JR CG 8 2.24% 0.38% 40.00% 0.37%
Brooks Ford JR WING 5 0.72% 0.14% 150.00% 0.10%
87.70% 88.12% 88.05%
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier Pinson | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD

A lightly recruited slender combo guard from Chicago, Pinson has been a beacon of hope for Mizzou fans for two years. He’s flashed an elite playmaking ability coupled with a terrific combination of a hesitation dribble and crossover dribble which gets him to the rim at will. But Pinson has also been plagued by inconsistent play and high turnover rates; plus he’s prone to falling asleep on defense enough to drive his head coach mad. But late in the season last year Cuonzo Martin switched up his offense and it put the focus more on Pinson, and he excelled. Pinson is probably the single biggest impact player when things are going well, and he’s also the guy who can take Mizzou over the top.

A lot of people who watched Missouri play last year may be surprised by the lack of Dru Smith as one of the featured players. But the fact is, Dru Smith is really, really good, and he’s going to be really, really good again this year. Where Missouri goes has a lot more to do with how the rest of the team plays than Dru Smith, who will be very, very good. Another Smith who will most certainly be very good this year, as long as he’s healthy, is Mark Smith. The Illinois transfer has struggled to play with a clean bill of health but proclaims he’s ailment free for the first time since high school, and a breakout could very well be possible. Smith is an elite shooter when he’s feeling well, and gives the team the outside threat they need.

Kobe Brown started nearly every game a year ago and is a good fit at the combo forward spot. He didn’t make jumpers at a clip Mizzou needed him to, but he’s a good defender, and when he’s attacking the rim can be effective. Javon Pickett has been a fixture in the lineup for a long time, and when he plays well it really helps the Mizzou offense. But he’s been inconsistent in shooting and finishing around the rim. Mitchell Smith is going into his 5th year in the program and has learned how to earn minutes under Martin. He plays hard, defends, and has a good enough shooting touch to be a threat from deep. Maybe the most mysterious player on the roster is Torrence Watson, a streaky shooter who bottomed out more than anyone last year, but proved himself to be a deft defender and is learning to play with more energy. If he can find an offensive rhythm with any consistency he will take Mizzou’s offense to a different level.

Parker Braun is a fan favorite for his athleticm and skill offensively, but he’s struggled on defense and rebounding the ball. If he cleans up those areas you can see an increasing role. Evan Yerkes has reportedly opted out on the season, and Brooks Ford is currently on a leave from the team; both were walk-ons.

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

Jeremiah Tilmon | SENIOR | POST

If there’s been a more frustrating player in the SEC over the last three years than Jeremiah Tilmon, I’d like to meet them. No player combines the same size, skill, footwork, and all around impact than Tilmon does at the center position. When Tilmon is on the floor and is involved and engaged, he makes Missouri a much better team. He’s capable of being one of the 2 or 3 best post players in the league, but that version of Tilmon doesn’t come out as much, and it’s dragged the team’s performance down. To make matters more complicated for Tilmon, he struggled with a foot injury last year. If this year the Tigers can get the best version of Tilmon, you’re likely to see the best version of the Tigers, and that’s a threat to the SEC.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Jordan Wilmore 7'3 245 ★★★ 465 POST
Jr Ed Chang 6'8 215 ★★★ - CF
R-Sr Drew Buggs 6'3 195 Grad Transfer Hawaii PG

With no real departures a year ago, the recruiting class was small. Jordan Wilmore is very very big. He’s 7’3 and 265 pounds. He wasn’t heavily recruited, but Mizzou obviously thinks he can help them, even if it’s not this year. In need of some ball handling help, the Tigers signed Hawaii’s career assist leader, Drew Buggs. And in need of help shooting from the combo forward spot they signed 6’8 JUCO forward Ed Chang, who shot over 40% from 3 at his junior college last year. All in all, it’s not a class that will wow you, but the Tigers looked to fulfill specific needs and they got specific players to fill those needs.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Dru Smith Drew Buggs
(2) Combo Guard Xavier Pinson Javon Pickett
(3) Wing Mark Smith Torrence Watson
(4) Combo Forward Kobe Brown Mitchell Smith Ed Chang
(5) Post Jeremiah Tilmon Parker Braun Jordan Wilmore

Lock in Dru Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon and start from there. As long as Mark Smith is healthy, he’s likely the fixture on the wing. Xavier Pinson has done well in a starter role and off the bench, but if he’s turned the corner then you’d expect him to start as well. Then considering Kobe Brown started nearly all year last year I’d expect him to fill in the four spot. So your starters are mostly locked in based upon past performance. But the second team is interesting because Drew Buggs provides a third ball handler, Ed Chang provides badly needed shooting, and the rest of the returners are all hit and miss offensively. The second string is certainly known, but not really an offensive juggernaut.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 15-9 | KenPom Projected Record: 14-11

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 25 Home Oral Roberts 201 W
Dec 6 Away Wichita St 97 W
Dec 9 Home Liberty 162 W
Dec 12 Home Illinois 18 L
Dec 22 Home Bradley 127 W
Jan 30 Home TCU 53 W
avg 109.67 5-1

Prior to COVID, Missouri’s non-conference schedule was shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory. They were going to play Kansas (since cancelled), Utah (cancelled), as well as the projected top 10 Illinois Fighting Illini (still on!). They worked to get a road game against Wichita State, who’ve since had to fire (really, they let him resign) Gregg Marshall. And their multi-team event was cancelled as well. But overall, this is still a good slate of games, provided they’re able to play all of them. And Missouri is still trying to get another couple games lined up.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 30 Home Tennessee 20 W
Jan 2 Away Arkansas 54 L
Jan 5 Away Mississippi State 78 W
Jan 9 Home LSU 37 W
Jan 12 Home Vanderbilt 126 W
Jan 16 Away Texas A&M 68 L
Jan 19 Home South Carolina 60 W
Jan 23 Away Tennessee 20 L
Jan 26 Away Auburn 66 L
Feb 2 Home Kentucky 11 L
Feb 6 Home Alabama 46 W
Feb 10 Away Ole Miss 42 L
Feb 13 Home Arkansas 54 W
Feb 16 Away Georgia 92 W
Feb 20 Away South Carolina 60 L
Feb 23 Home Ole Miss 42 W
Feb 27 Home Texas A&M 68 W
Mar 3 Away Florida 24 L
avg 53.78 10-8

Missouri’s schedule is tough, but navigable. There are really a couple key stretches I think they need to focus on. Their first four conference games feature two home and two away games. The home games are against Tennessee and LSU, two teams in the upper tier of the league, and the away games are against Arkansas and Mississippi State. The game at Arkansas is not one you expect to win, so they need to win at MSU and get at least one of the home games. The next key stretch features two road games at Tennessee and Auburn, and home games against Kentucky and Alabama. Like the first four games, you don’t expect to beat Tennessee in Knoxville, but Auburn is vulnerable this year, and if you want to make the tournament, beating teams like Kentucky at home is important, and Alabama becomes a must win. Go 3-1 in the first stretch, and at least 2-2 in this one, and you’re on your way to an NCAA tournament birth (provided they take care of business elsewhere).

OVERVIEW

With so much working against the Tigers last year, they still managed a way to work themselves into a decent position in league play. Mizzou finished an injury riddled and poor shooting season with a 7-11 league record having won five of their final nine games. They were swept by Texas A&M, and the home loss against the Aggies was such a narrow loss they clearly missed the inside presence of Jeremiah Tilmon. Flip a few close losses during the stretch without Tilmon and Mark Smith, and suddenly the team we expected to see last year is the one you have. Instead of 15-16, maybe they’re 18-13 or 19-12, and returning 80+% of their production and the expectations for the team are completely different.

missouri 2020 synergy

Missouri has a few things working against them with the preseason expectations. One, it’s been so long since the program has been good, they’re no longer expected to be good. Many people in the media and around the league look at the league as a fairly static thing. Certain teams will be given the benefit of the doubt (looking at you, Florida), while others will be doubted. For 5 of the last 6 years, Mizzou has been lodged at the bottom of the league, so it’s easy to overlook a team who has been historically bad, even one that returns nearly all of its production.

The second thing they have working for them is the progress of the season last year. Missouri was 2-7 in league play and staring down a 13th seed in the conference tournament before they worked their way out of it. So a late season surge from 13th to 10th isn’t going to blow anyone out of the water.

But this Tiger team has some real reason to hope things are better this year.

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

It boils down to what the expectations were for this team a season ago if they were healthy. Missouri struggled to keep two starters healthy, and also struggled to shoot the ball. Shooting is still a key concern, as the team spent much of the last few seasons making three-pointers at a high clip only to see that percentage drop from 36% to just 29% last year. The team’s inability to make shots for an offense designed to get open jumpers caused a change in philosophy mid-season. And that midseason change prompted a significant boost in efficiency.

For Missouri to meet these rather lofty expectations, they simply need to do a couple things this year. Be healthy and don't shoot the ball so horribly. Is that too much to ask for Cuonzo Martin and his program? Time will tell.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

In Jeremiah Tilmon, Missouri has one of the most gifted big men in the league, and now he’s surrounded by a trio of guards capable of getting him the ball in good position to score. Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson have shown they can carry a scoring load, and are more than capable of generating offense at the free throw line. If Mizzou keeps their guys off the injured list, they should find themselves in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth and possibly a double bye in the league tournament.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

In year four, Cuonzo Martin’s teams have never lived up to expectations, regardless of the injuries. If they have an offensive season like they did a year ago and struggle to shoot the ball as much as they did last year, it’s going to be a struggle for them to beat many of the upper tier teams in the league. And as dumb as the state motto is, most Missouri fans believe they need to be shown something before they believe in it.


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.