A week ago, the SEC bowed to the reality that it would need to cancel its postseason tournament in the escalating effort to halt the spread of COVID-19.
For Missouri, a team whose performance oscillated wildly, the abrupt end ushers in a pivotal offseason unfolding in a set of circumstances that seem impossible to conjure up. On paper, the state of the Tigers’ roster appears stable. Only Reed Nikko is set to depart, but Jordan Wilmore is in the fold to fill his spot along the front line. At the moment, Cuonzo Martin has one open scholarship, a void created Mario McKinney’s mid-season transfer.
In theory, filling one scholarship isn’t a heavy lift. Anyone who watched MU this season, however, knows the commodity needed to fill it could prove elusive. As currently constructed, the roster Martin’s built could use some steady scoring punch. How the Tigers go about acquiring it looms large as the hot stove fires up.
Typically, the first answer would be obvious: a market for transfers that seems to be expanding each year.
So far, though, Martin and his staff appear to be waiting and watching as that pool of talent fills up. That choice seems confounding when programs like Arkansas and Nebraska, who are led by coaches well versed in using transfers as building blocks, touch base with almost every entrant.
Several factors are at play, and potentially explain why prudence might be the current approach.
Factor No. 1: A Slow-Moving Carousel
By now, several high-major programs have coaching vacancies they’re hustling to fill. No, the coaching market isn’t entirely dormant. Seventeen jobs have come open, but none of them are in power conferences.
The highest-profile hire so far? Iona bringing Rick Pitino back from Greece and the Euroleague.
Consider: What veterans would be looking to move had Texas fired Shaka Smart? Or Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech? And Jim Christian at Boston College? How many of those players would also be coveted elsewhere?
Landers Nolley II, a member of the ACC All-Freshmen squad, is on the move as he hunts for a program that will play him exclusively at the wing. Wichita State is also enduring an exodus as starters Jamarius Burton, Erik Stevenson and Grant Sherfield move along. Meanwhile, Elias King, a former top-125 prospect, is one of three defections from Mississippi State.
By Thursday, D.J. Carton, a former top-40 prospect, announced he was transferring from Ohio State after taking a leave of absence with 10 games left in the regular season. (In a matter of hours, 13 schools reached out to him, too.) Amauri Hardy, who led UNLV with 14.5 points per game, entered the portal. Those moves came a day after Trey McGowens, who averaged 11.5 points, left Pitt.
The question is whether pace picks up in the coming days.
Typically, a few highly touted recruits also reopen their courtship after the coach who recruited them has been relieved of their job. The relative stability, however, means fewer of these players are asking for releases from their letter of intent.
Factor No. 2: NBA Draft Limbo
The outbreak of the coronavirus also casts uncertainty over this year’s NBA draft, potentially creating downward demand for players to fill emerging roster spots.
The NBA is still accepting applications to the Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which gives feedback to college prospects before they toss their name into the hopper. The deadline to declare also remains April 16, which ensures players have ample time to reach a decision and allow front offices to see a pool of talent form.
Outside of that, though, uncertainty rules.
Once a player declares, they live on the road, traveling for workouts, pro-days and meetings. The current pandemic throws an obvious wrench in the process. The NBA might also be unable to hold its pre-draft combine. Taken together, there will be fewer chances for players to be evaluated.
The impact isn’t felt among players like Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or Obi Toppin.
Instead, players on the margin bear the brunt. As we saw last spring, players weren’t hesitant about jumping into the draft, where it’s becoming increasingly common for second-round picks and free-agents to extract a payday. That logic, though, hinges on franchises being able to throughly survey their options.
A player on MU’s roster fits that profile: Jeremiah Tilmon.
Two weeks ago, Tilmon said he intended to explore the draft process but added he was not “putting two feet in.” The landscape looks markedly different now. How can he improve his standing if workouts are curbed, especially if he wasn’t likely to land an invite to the pre-draft combine? And will an agent want to sign him, underwrite housing and coordinate training if we don’t know what the schedule looks like moving forward?
The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie encapsulated the current state of play nicely in a piece ($) outlining his draft board.
Imagine being the coach of a kid on the borderline of being a draft pick. Guys projected as late-first to mid-second-round picks. What do you tell them when you don’t know how the process will be? What do you tell them when there is even uncertainty about when the G League’s season will pick up again, let alone the NBA season? Mostly, coaches are in the waiting game right now, telling their kids to hold tight and be patient — a process exacerbated by the fact that many colleges in particularly virus-stricken areas are telling their student-athletes to go back home.
Set aside the tumultuous times, too. Tilmon wasn’t popping up on draft boards before the coronavirus created disarray. Could it be more prudent for him to take a conservative approach and stick around Columbia? We’ll have to wait and see, but his decision might force MU to pivot and scour the landscape for a different player.
A year ago, roster churn defined the offseason. Today, continuity might be the buzzword.
Factor No. 3: Logistical Hurdles
Since the cancellation NCAA tournament, a simmering topic remains whether seniors in winter sports will receive an additional year of eligibility. Late last week, the Division I Council Coordination Committee granted that relief to athletes in spring sports, but basketball players remain in limbo.
Without question, the escalating global pandemic robbed the experience of March Madness from a segment of players. However, the overwhelming majority completed the bulk of the final campaign. As of Wednesday afternoon, word began filtering out that the NCAA would stand pat.
Sources: The NCAA is unlikely to grant an extra year of eligibility for student athletes who participated in winter sports and had their seasons cut short due to coronavirus.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 18, 2020
An extra year of eligibility is still in play for student athletes involved with spring sports.
It’s unclear what impact adopting the measure might have had, though. Among many of the thorny questions might have been whether the extra year applies only if the player getting relief stayed at their current school. A decision, however, would give coaches clarity on just how many roster spots they can fill during the spring signing period.
That recruiting calendar has also been upended.
On March 13, the NCAA instituted a dead period that will run through April 15, barring coaches from in-person contact with recruits on a college campus, at the prospect’s school, or in their home. Schools were also asked to suspend official visits. Granted, college basketball coaches were already in a dead period, but it was slated to lapse on April 1.
At the moment, any courtship is unfolding in phone conversations, text messages or direct messages via social media. Unwieldy as that might seem, a program could still sign a player to a letter of intent in April. Right?
They could. Until Tuesday, when the National Letter of Intent announced it would mirror the NCAA’s recruiting moratorium.
NLI SUSPENSION DURING THE TEMPORARY RECRUITING DEAD PERIOD pic.twitter.com/thS4FkFflZ— Letter of Intent (@NLIinsider) March 15, 2020
None of this has stopped high-major programs from pursuing the few remaining blue-chips or elite transfer targets. Cumulatively, though, they disrupt the normal courtship process where a player fields calls, sets official visits, and ultimately announces a decision. This also assumes a coach already has clarity on how many roster spots are unfilled.
For some coaches, bringing aboard a transfer isn’t an expedited process. They not only need to vet film and look over analytics but assess how easily a veteran will mesh with their program’s culture. How flexible will that player be if the role they are given diverges from what they envisioned? During a visit, how much chemistry exists between that player and those with sweat equity invested? And if you’re a player, how much patience do you show as this plays out?
Where does this leave Mizzou?
Let’s be clear: Cuonzo Martin doesn’t need to fill his lone scholarship with a transfer.
The likelihood of landing a high-caliber prep prospect, however, seems remote. Per reports, the Tigers have faded in the race for Josh Christopher, who seems likely to pick Arizona State or Michigan. MU also kicked the tires on Donovan Williams, a four-star guard who decommitted from Nebraska, but never extended an offer.
Over his first three seasons on the job, Martin’s plucked an impact player looking for a fresh start: Kassius Robertson, Mark Smith and Dru Smith. And last April, Mizzou made a concerted push for Eric Williams Jr., a Duquesne transfer and Michigan native, who ultimately landed with Oregon. The question is whether that player is currently available or attainable.
Based on reports, Mizzou’s staff hasn’t been all that active in vetting players who are on the move. Should that elicit concern? I’m not so sure. Why? When I peruse the transfer market that has taken shape, I see one still taking shape. For example, here are the top-10 available players in Bart Torvik’s transfer rankings.
Top Transfer Options | 2019-2020
|E.J. Anosike||Jr.||6-0/245||CF||Y||Sacred Heart||3||15.7||11.6||1.7||83.3||113||23.9|
|Ian DuBose||Jr.||6-4/210||CG||Y||Houston Baptist||4||19||7.3||3.8||82.8||104.4||28.4|
Scarcity also means the suitors whose short-term outlooks might be more appealing than MU, which is coming off a 15-16 campaign. Mike Smith already singled out Arizona and Michigan as top choices. Similarly, a pack of contenders is trailing Bryce Aiken. Kevin Marfo’s fielded calls from 25 schools. Seth Towns is also close to a decision, which will come down to Duke or Ohio State. And while Nolley sits at No. 15 in Torvik’s rankings, he’s talked to 40 programs since announcing his exit from Blacksburg.
Meanwhile, the players populating the top end of the market fall into two camps: undersized scoring point guards and combo guards. Ironically, those positions are where MU’s existing options are sound.
Our working assumption is Mizzou could use a plug-and-play scorer on the wing. Whether it’s a floor-spacer or a slasher, the Tigers need to enter next year with a reliable perimeter threat. Personally, I’d opt for an athletic wing capable of attacking in transition, knifing into gaps against a set defense and finishing at the rim.
Xavier Pinson flourished in the stretch run isolating mismatches after switches, and Dru Smith remains crafty operating in high ball screens. Still, the Tigers finished 285th nationally in efficiency possessions that ended with a shot at the rim, per Synergy. Landing a wing that excels playing downhill would fit nicely alongside Dru Smith and complement a spot-up threat such as Mark Smith, who needs rediscover the consistency he displayed as a sophomore.
Keep in mind, too, that under normal circumstances, March Madness would just be getting underway. As those games played out over three weeks, capturing the attention of fans and media, the transfer portal would slowly crowd. This season, we’re likely more attuned to who on-boards for a change of scenery because, well, there’s not a 68-team tournament taking place.
The time for hand-wringing hasn’t quite arrived.