Normally, we’d have just wrapped up the first weekend of March Madness. Sixteen teams would be moving on, and we’d all be watching college basketball. Missouri may or may not (probably not) have made some sort of magical run to the tournament, but having the dream was better on the table and a far more palatable option than having the tablecloth ripped away completely.
Even without the finality of March, we got to see a full season of Missouri basketball. It didn’t live up to the lofty expectations we all seemed to run with at the year’s beginning, but it wasn’t quite the disaster it was shaping up to be about halfway through the SEC schedule. So as we wait for whatever sort of new normal we’ll find ourselves in, it’s time to go back over the 2019-2020 season.
As we do every year, we’re going to run a series of posts examining each player’s season. Like always, we’ll start with the seniors — or rather, senior. Missouri boasted only one senior on this year’s roster, the incomparable fisher(man) king himself — Big ‘Sota.
By bulk stats and efficiency numbers, one could argue that Big ‘Sota’s senior year was one of his best. What sort of progression did you see from Nikko in his final year as a Tiger?
Sam Snelling, Site Manager: Reed has always been the guy who always knew what his limits were, and did all he could to play to his strengths. The signs have always been there, but his role was limited because of his own limits. Nikko became the wisened senior who knew what he could do and also understand what he wasn’t so good at. When you play to your strengths, you tend to be a little more effective. Nikko was good at recognizing his matchup and whether he could take advantage, or if he was better off kicking the ball out and hunting for dump offs and put backs.
As a big, it’s amazing how much better your efficiency numbers can be if you just make good decisions on a regular basis.
Matt Harris, Lead Basketball Writer: You can’t deny that Nikko’s raw production improved, and he tried to give MU a replacement-level anchor on the backline. If that’s the standard, Nikko met it. It would be easy to point out that the Tigers’ defensive rating dipped as his minutes went up, that his foul rate remained high and he’s not the same athlete as Tilmon. Lodging those critiques, however, requires ignoring context. Nikko has always been the heavy tapped to lean on opposing bigs, rebound and provide some spot scoring. Fundamentally, his game wouldn’t change as his minutes climbed. I’d rather focus on how hard Nikko worked to give Mizzou what needed and not on facets of his game that we know might be lacking.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Editor: Reed Nikko, for all the reasons I love him and would die for him, is not a hyper-athletic big. He’s always been more of a tank down low — a rim protector with some surprising skill. In his senior year, he continued to do what he’s always done: progress. Every season Nikko became slightly more confident, slightly smarter and slightly more efficient, and 2019-2020 was a culmination of that work. The result of that improvement, plus his added minutes in Jeremiah Tilmon’s absence, made it Nikko’s career year.
Ryan Herrera, Lead Basketball Beat Writer: I just think his confidence skyrocketed as soon as he was thrust into the starting lineup and saw he could handle starters’ minutes at the 5. He’s a guy that always did well when he stuck to his strengths, and the increased workload gave him an opportunity to do that on a more consistent basis. And as a senior, I think he just knew how to make the right choices. His rotations were sound, he was efficient from the field (he shot below 50% in just four of his 20 starts) and he was the leader this team needed in the midst of another season of injury woes. Nikko isn’t a championship centerpiece, but he did everything Missouri needed to try to stay afloat during SEC play.
When Jeremiah Tilmon was confined to the bench at the start of SEC play, Nikko took on a much bigger role. How did he acquit himself against the SEC’s big men?
Sam Snelling: Nikko’s limited mobility and a slight lack of fluidity as an athlete means he could more easily be exposed if pulled away from the rim. But there’s no doubt he was still capable of protecting the rim on weak side rotations as long as he didn’t have an overabundance of ground to cover. But mostly it just depended on the matchup. He struggled against the more athletic bigs and with teams who could attack with multiple post players. So going against Josh Nebo or Reggie Perry was a challenge. But teams without a lot of size? He was able to exploit those matchups.
Matt Harris: Overall, Nikko helped buoy a Missouri defense that steadily eroded as the season wore on. The Tigers’ defensive rating improved by eight points over 100 possessions with him on the floor. That margin remained static against the likes of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Florida and Texas A&M — all of whom had legitimate low-block threats. Yet the Tigers’ overall efficiency tanked in those games, sliding to 1.03 points per points per possession. And per Synergy, Nikko graded out as an average (0.833 PPP) post-up defender. Again, none of this comes as a surprise. For a player like Nikko, matchups matter, and SEC play only underscored that time-worn observation.
Josh Matejka: It fluctuated. As much as I just praised Nikko above, it was obvious that there were times he was outmatched athletically — players like Nick Richards and Reggie Perry had their way with him in the paint. But there were games when he looked the part of an SEC starter, namely against smaller teams. When Nikko was able to capitalize on his size advantage, he was most effective.
Ryan Herrera: There were times when Nikko looked like he fit right in with some of the SEC’s best big men, and other times where he was overwhelmed by the talent on opposing teams. Nick Richards’ performance on Jan. 4 comes to mind, when he absolutely dominated the Tigers for 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. It goes without saying that Missouri is better when Jeremiah Tilmon is on the floor, and the Tigers’ overall efficiency dropped once Nikko was moved to the starting lineup. But when Nikko’s matchups favored his strengths, he looked like a capable SEC starter.
The reaction at Senior Day told us what was obvious to anyone who paid attention: Reed Nikko was beloved by Missouri fans. How will you remember Big ‘Sota’s tenure in black and gold?
Sam Snelling: I’m always happy to see a guy like Nikko get some love. Mainly because he’s a great kid from a good family and he stuck with the program through a coaching change. I’ll mostly remember him as a throwback. A guy who waited his turn, was more than capable and became an important role guy over time. But the kind of guy you really need on the baseline. One who didn’t complain when he wasn’t getting minutes, supported his teammates and was equally as beloved if not moreso for it.
Matt Harris: A year ago, we talked about how Kevin Puryear embodied the archetype of a program guy. Nikko fits the same profile. He bought in to how Martin wanted to play, accepted his role and its allotted minutes, and served as a critical role model for younger guys like Kobe Brown, who was his roommate on road trips. During games, my eye always moved to the Missouri bench after Nikko swatted a shot or put down a lob. They spotted Jeremiah Tilmon hyped up at seeing his teammate make a play instead of quietly clapping. From afar, you could see the respect and equity Nikko amassed with his teammates. Those moments hint at a culture that’s coalescing. Maybe the results weren’t what fans expected, but players like Puryear, Nikko and, most likely, Mitchell Smith reflect a locker room where discord isn’t a problem.
Josh Matejka: Reed Nikko represents a unique case from the Kim Anderson-Cuonzo Martin era. When he came to Missouri he probably wasn’t a Power 5 talent, and most of us knew he would never be a star. But Nikko embodied values that many Missouri fans love — hard work, perseverance and a business-like demeanor. Nikko never complained about minutes, and was always sturdy when called upon. And as he grew into his upperclassmen years, he developed an outward personality. It was the perfect recipe for an underdog Midwesterner to become a fan favorite in a program built by Norm Stewart and stewarded by Cuonzo Martin.
Ryan Herrera: I think the best way to remember Nikko is by keeping his game-winning block on Anthony Edwards etched in our mind. It was the culmination of the long journey of a guy that came in under a previous coach, worked his ass off for four years, worked hard on reshaping his body, bought into his new coach’s program and waited for his shot. He never complained about minutes, and was that hard-nosed player coaches love. He was quiet throughout his time in college, but he didn’t need to be a vocal leader to gain universal respect from the locker room and fanbase alike. He wasn’t the star of the team, but that block on a sure-fire lottery and possible No. 1 overall pick will be something he and the Missouri faithful will remember for quite some time.