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SEC Basketball Preview: Cuonzo Martin’s established a baseline, but can a resetting Mizzou overachieve?

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Previewing the No. 11 team in the SEC, the Missouri Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

When Cuonzo Martin took over Missouri, it was fresh off its worst three seasons in modern history. Four years later, he’s still trying to establish what MU’s identity looks like under his direction. There have been moderate successes: two NCAA tournament appearances, a three-game win streak against Illinois, and a few marquee wins. But the continuity of the last few years is gone. Five seniors moved from last year’s roster, while four more players transferred out. Entering his fifth season, Martin only returns three scholarship players.

It’s a full-blown reset. So, what can we expect?


Previous SEC Previews

Mizzou Preview

#11 Missouri Tigers

Last Season: 16 - 10 (8-8 in conference) No. 47 KenPom

My Prediction: 16 - 14 (7-11, 11th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 6.5 - 11.5 (10th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 10th in conference

KenPom Projection: 11 - 17 (6-12 in conference) No. 96

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Cuonzo Martin | Fifth Season, 66-56

Last season marked the first time Cuonzo Martin coached the same team for a fourth season. It was also one of the most experienced in the country, and it capitalized on it with a fast start and a top-10 ranking by early February. But was that ranking overstating MU’s actual ability? A little. The Tigers’ efficiency metrics told us they were closer to a top-40 level group throughout the year. Still, it was a season where Martin steered his team past expectations, something he’s done each year at Mizzou.

If Missouri is going to be in contention for the NCAA Tournament again this year he’s going to have to do it again, with a new roster, a new outlook, and a lot of people doubting it can happen.

Seat Temp: COOL

mizzou preview 10 year look

For more than two decades, Mizzou was a near fixture in the NCAA tournament. Between 1979 to 2003, the Tigers missed the dance just six times, and one of those resulted from a postseason ban. Making the NCAA Tournament 75% of the time is the expectation level for most fans, making the last 18 seasons frustrating. Over that period, MU’s made the tournament seven times (38%) and haven’t won a game in the event since knocking off Clemson in the first round back in 2010. Has MU underachieved the last two decades? Or did it overachieve in the two that came before?

As we’ve noted, Martin’s restored some stability and has the program back at its recent baseline. The question is whether he can raise its floor. And how quickly will it happen?

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Dru Smith graduation 26 84.38% 19.49% 21.17% 18.52%
Xavier Pinson transfer 26 63.24% 18.54% 14.99% 19.51%
Jeremiah Tilmon, Jr graduation 24 63.05% 15.61% 18.08% 14.73%
Mark Smith grad transfer 26 73.24% 13.20% 10.46% 12.93%
Mitchell Smith graduation 26 50.86% 6.13% 8.19% 6.26%
Parker Braun transfer 20 17.62% 2.88% 4.25% 2.21%
Drew Buggs transfer 26 33.81% 2.51% 2.84% 4.58%
Torrence Watson transfer 22 15.14% 2.10% 1.67% 2.02%
Ed Chang transfer 0 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
80.27% 80.46% 81.65% 80.76%

It’s rare MU leads the SEC in roster turnover, but that’s where they are after this offseason. No other program must replace more minutes. The most significant loss is All-SEC guard Dru Smith, as good of a player as MU’s had in its backcourt for some time. Smith was a terrific defender whose ability to create deflections and steals papered over his teammates’ mistakes. And as a senior, he found his shooting stroke, leading MU in 3-point percentage.

The other big loss comes in the middle with Jeremiah Tilmon, Jr. finally overcoming his foul-prone ways, averaging 23 minutes per game. Simply staying on the floor brought Tilmon more consistency and the kind of impact most imagined he’d have when signed on back in 2017.

The enigmatic Xavier Pinson is also gone, transferring within the SEC to LSU, where an injury to Adam Miller might make him a starting lead guard. Pinson was as capable of putting 30 points up as he was becoming a ghost and defensive liability. Meanwhile, Mark Smith used his COVID year to transfer west to Kansas State. The combo guard broke out early as a sophomore, but his play leveled off as he dealt with injuries. Even if his scoring wasn’t always consistent, he played the second-most minutes, providing constant defense and rebounding.

Combo forward Mitchell Smith went from an afterthought to a glue guy, his defensive versatility allowing Martin to play small without giving up a lot of size. He never quite found his touch as a shooter, but Smith was enough of a threat to hit some big shots, including one that basically clinched a win at Florida.

Graduate transfer Drew Buggs arrived from Hawaii hoping to make an NCAA tournament and filled in a reserve role quite well. A low-usage ball mover on offense and a consistent defender, Buggs didn’t fill up the scoring column, but the offense was more efficient with him on the floor. Wing Torrence Watson was a well-regarded recruit in the 2018 class and closed his freshman season on a hot streak. Yet the St. Louis native seemed to regress the next two seasons, struggling to shoot the ball with any consistency. Forward Parker Braun was a lightly used backup better suited to playing down a level, and his defensive struggles against the athleticism of the SEC overshadowed some offensive polish. JUCO product Ed Chang never quite over a preseason injury, didn’t earn a place in the rotation and transferred after the season.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Javon Pickett JR WING 26 52.76% 10.95% 53.00% 11.33%
Kobe Brown SO CF 26 43.81% 8.38% 55.70% 6.98%
Jordan Wilmore SO POST 5 2.10% 0.21% 50.00% 0.05%
19.73% 19.54% 18.36%
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Brown | JUNIOR | COMBO FORWARD

Missouri isn’t bringing a whole lot back, but they get back a guy who has started all but five games in his first two seasons. Brown is a hybrid who can play on the wing or the four spot, a player who does quite a few things well but nothing exceptional. Last year, he averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds, and has only scored in double-digits five times since arriving in Columbia. Yet, he had six games down the stretch where he did just that, a possible hint of a major step forward.

He’ll need to keep that momentum going, too. Some have said Brown’s the key to MU’s season. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but the team does need him to expand his offensive contributions and provide them consistently. The Tigers have quite a few players adjusting to the high-major level. Brown’s comfortable in that environment, but will his game match that experience?

The other returners won’t take long to get through, either. Only Javon Pickett played substantial minutes in each of his three years with the program, starting every game his freshman year and almost two-thirds of them as a sophomore. Last season, he accepted a lesser role, coming off the bench as an energy guy. Coincidentally, Pickett became more selective and more efficient with his touches. The role he plays this season might also be a hint about this roster’s direction.

Sophomore post Jordan Wilmore is big — like, huge. But he didn’t play much last year and didn’t look comfortable defending when he was in the game. It’s unclear how he fits into the plans going into the season, but it’s something worth watching.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Anton Brookshire 6'1 170 ★★★ 163 CG
Fr Trevon Brazile 6'9 215 ★★★ 182 CF
Fr Yaya Keita 6'8 240 ★★★ 202 POST
Fr Sean Durugordon 6'7 210 ★★★ 233 WING
Fr Kaleb Brown 6'6 255 ★★★ 328 CG
So Ronnie DeGray III 6'6 225 Transfer UMass CF
Jr Amari Davis 6'2 175 Transfer Green Bay CG
Jr DaJuan Gordon 6'3 185 Transfer Kansas State WING
RS-Jr Jarron Coleman 6'4 210 Transfer Ball State PG
NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Toledo vs Ball State Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Jarron ‘Boogie’ Coleman | JUNIOR | POINT GUARD

Missouri imported four transfers, and the one who may hold the keys to the ignition of the offense is Ball State transfer Jarron ‘Boogie’ Coleman. Boogie is a bit of an old-school throwback guard with a nu-school game. The Indianapolis native was a solid three-star recruit who redshirted season at Ball State before blossoming late in his sophomore season.

Coming off an injury, Coleman dealt with a minutes restriction before going on a heater later in the season, culminating with a 33-point effort in the MAC Tournament against Toledo. He finished the shortened year shooting over 40% from 3-point range on a moderate 26% usage rate as a primary and secondary ball handler. If Boogie can carry that production into the SEC, it will be a crucial development for MU.

Nine newcomers—four transfers and five freshmen—means another long section, so buckle up.

The most recognizable transfer is DaJuan ‘Quaye’ Gordon, former top-100 recruit and Chicago native who arrives via Kansas State. Gordon was a fixture in the Wildcats’ rotation the last two years, but he was never quite the right stylistic fit in Bruce Weber’s system. Ironically, the transfer portal took him from Gene Keady disciple to another. Unlike Weber, Martin’s been more willing to embrace the shift toward analytics, faster pace, and a more modern offensive system. Perhaps that will help Gordon fit better. As a player, he’s best off the ball on the wing, where he can attack the rim or run the floor in transition.

Amari Davis committed to another Keady disciple in Linc Darner at Green Bay, and his impact was immediate as he won Freshman of the Year in the Horizon League. Then Darner was fired and replaced with Will Ryan, the son of fabled Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, and a slower tempo. While Davis remained productive, he left searching for—you guessed it—and better stylistic fit. Davis excels in the mid-range and in ball screens, and he could be a sneaky pick for Mizzou’s leading scorer.

Ronnie DeGray III forged himself a unique role as a freshman at UMass before opting to test the transfer waters where he reconnected with the Missouri staff. The Colorado native is a do-it-all combo forward who will remind fans of a bigger version of Pickett. A player who does a lot of little things, DeGray is crafty around the basket, a capable enough shooter to stretch the defense, and can make some plays off the bounce.

The incoming freshmen are also an intriguing group.

Anton Brookshire is the highest-rated of the group, a skilled combo guard who is a bit undersized but an elite-level shooter. Sean Durugordon, who arrived at mid-year last season and redshirted, is a long, rangy wing who’s a plus athlete and has a blooming skillset and a 6-foot-7 frame on the wing. Trevon Brazile is the perfect example of a late-blooming prospect. As a junior, he was a 6-foot-3 guard. Then a growth spurt started, bringing him to 6-foot-9. Brazile’s skilled with the ball in his hands, bouncy, and has the kind of length and mobility to be a switchable defender in space. If all goes well, he might be a pro.

By contrast, Yaya Keita is a 6-foot-9 post who immigrated from Mali and learned the game of basketball late, but he’s picking it up quickly. A plus athlete, Keita’s already a good rim runner and roller, and he can bury smaller defenders inside. The next step is expanding his range. Kaleb Brown is the group’s last entry, and he’s Kobe’s younger brother and the combo guard to his older brother’s combo forward. He’s a big, physical guard who won’t blow you away athletically but is skilled enough and has a mature enough body to make an early impression.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jarron Coleman Anton Brookshire
(2) Combo Guard DaJuan Gordon Amari Davis Kaleb Brown
(3) Wing Javon Pickett Sean Durugordon
(4) Combo Forward Kobe Brown Ronnie DeGray III Trevon Brazile
(5) Post Yaya Keita Jordan Wilmore

When it comes to the depth chart, it’s basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We will find out soon enough, but it feels safe to start any projection with Kobe Brown and Pickett and fill in the gaps around them. Coleman has the most ball-handling experience, so I’ve got him slated at point guard. That pushes DaJuan Gordon, an outstanding defender, off the ball to combo guard.

Where it gets really interesting is in the post. As Martin’s tried to pick up the pace and emphasize a switching-based defense, his lineups might trend away from a traditional big like Wilmore. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Brazile get a lot of minutes because he’s mobile enough laterally and bouncy enough to protect the rim. There are a lot of intriguing pieces here, though it’s challenging to get an accurate read on how the roles will play out. That said, I expect a deep rotation.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 16-14 | KenPom Projected Record: 11-17

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at West Virginia
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Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 9 Home Central Michigan 303 W
Nov 15 Home UMKC 248 W
Nov 18 Home Northern Illinois 324 W
Nov 18 Neutral Southern Methodist 60 W
Nov 22 Neutral Florida St / Loyola Marymount 24 / 69 L
Nov 26 Home Wichita State 62 W
Dec 2 Away Liberty 97 W
Dec 7 Home Eastern Illinois 338 W
Dec 11 Away Kansas 3 L
Dec 18 Home Utah 93 W
Dec 22 Neutral Illinois 5 L
Jan 29 Away Iowa State 113 W
avg 199.40 9-3

Even in a year where it’s overhauling the roster, MU didn’t put together a soft non-conference schedule. Honestly, a 9-3 record is probably the best-case scenario. There should be zero expectations of beating Kansas at Phog Allen. Even if the Jayhawks have some bumps early in the year as Bill Self figures out his rotation, this game is where he will want to make a statement.

MU has won three straight in Braggin’ Rights, and as long as Javon Pickett is on the roster to give Illinois the business, you have to like their chances. But Illinois should be really good, and four straight wins is a difficult task. I have the Tigers prevailing over SMU before losing to Florida State at the Jacksonville Classic, and the road trips to Liberty and Iowa State could trip them up. Holding serve against Utah in Columbia is also crucial. Still, 7-5 might be a likely outcome.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 29 Away Kentucky 17 L
Jan 5 Home Mississippi St 65 W
Jan 8 Home Alabama 19 L
Jan 12 Away Arkansas 15 L
Jan 15 Home Texas A&M 78 W
Jan 18 Away Ole Miss 57 L
Jan 22 Away Alabama 19 L
Jan 25 Home Auburn 28 L
Feb 2 Home Florida 25 W
Feb 5 Away Texas A&M 78 L
Feb 8 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
Feb 12 Home Ole Miss 57 W
Feb 15 Home Arkansas 15 W
Feb 19 Away Mississippi St 65 L
Feb 22 Home Tennessee 13 L
Feb 26 Away LSU 43 L
Mar 1 Away South Carolina 86 W
Mar 5 Home Georgia 159 W
avg 51 7-11

My initial pass on the games gave 10 wins to the Tigers, and I think it’s the ceiling. The floor? It’s probably five wins.

Opening at Kentucky will always be tough, but it’s followed by two home games and a trip to Arkansas, where MU has played well under Martin. But the SEC slate is still front-loaded. In its first eight games, MU will only play two against teams projected to finish below them in the standings, and one of them is at Mizzou Arena.

The home and home matchups are manageable. Texas A&M is starting a complete rebuild. Ole Miss is in a little bit of a transition. Arkansas hit the transfer portal for talent to go with some quality sophomores. Alabama is undoubtedly a tough draw, but their style of play is heavily reliant on 3-point shooting, and one off night makes them vulnerable. As for Mississippi State, Ben Howland added some talented transfers, but he’ll need them to buy into his defensive mentality—one that’s given Cuonzo Martin fits.

The key games to watch are the first home game against Mississippi State, a home game against Tennessee, and the home game against Arkansas. I’ve got them 2-1 in those games, and they need to pull that off to reach at least seven wins.

OVERVIEW

Look around the SEC, and it’s easy to get a hold on the teams that should be good and the ones that should be pretty bad. Then there’s a group of teams who look like complete mysteries. Missouri is one of them. And as someone who’s written about and covered the program for the last seven years, this is the first time I have no real idea what to expect.

Cuonzo Martin catches a lot of flack from fans for things real and imagined. But he’s still established a bit of a floor for his teams, and it’s not something he’s given credit for. At Missouri State, he overcame a poor first season to turn the Bears into a Missouri Valley Conference contender, and over his 13 seasons as a head coach, he’s only finished worse than 7-11 in conference play. That was 2019, a season where Jontay Porter tore his ACL and saw Mark Smith hobbled in January.

Maybe you’re not sold on Martin as the architect of an elite team or a conference champion. That’s fine. But he’s shown that his teams rarely bottom out. And you know they’re going to be competitive.

tennessee synergy 2020

The SEC has become a tough league, but it’s also one where the pecking order is fluid. The difference between 4th and 10th is usually decided who wins the most games decided by a few possessions. Last year, for example, Tennessee finished fourth at 10-7, and Georgia finished 10th at 7-11. In 2019, Arkansas went 7-11 and came in 10th, but that included a five-game losing skid where the Hogs lost twice in overtime and by one point to Mississippi State.

There are usually a few teams who figure it out early and set themselves apart. A few others seemed destined for the basement. But there are usually five or six teams slugging it out, where the results in two or three games ultimately decide where each one lands.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

I might not know quite what to make of this roster, but I trust Martin to find a few more wins than some expect. That’s how I landed at 7-11 in SEC play. Of course, there are scenarios where the goes really poorly and others where MU picks off a couple more wins than expected. But we’re venturing into the unknown, and a few things need to happen.

Kobe Brown needs to take that next step forward. Javon Pickett needs to be consistent and efficient. Boogie Coleman needs to be a reliable lead guard. And one more player needs to step up as a scorer. A good bet would be a slippery shotmaker like Davis, who put up a fair amount of points at Green Bay. Maybe it’s DaJuan Gordon, assuming his jumper becomes passable. But more than anything, MU needs to be more consistent in knocking down jumpers. It’s the only way the space aspect of pace-and-space works—and it’s been a flaw in the construction of recent rosters.

With so much undecided, it’s easy to understand why people are skeptical. Missouri’s only made the tournament every third year, hasn’t won there in a decade, turned over 80 percent of its production, and returns just one starter. There are no genuinely elite transfers or recruits filing the void, either.

Unlike some programs, though, you can see Martin has a plan and enough depth. Over the last few years, he has talked many times about playing with more pace and now has a team filled with long, rangy athletes built to run. With this group, he can play faster and use those traits to be more assertive defensively.

Martin has shown he can figure a team out on the fly, but now he has a group he wants to execute the system he desires. It’s all about the execution now.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Three players are up-transferring, but two of them were major contributors who did so efficiently at their last stops. There are a couple of multi-year starters who understand the program’s culture and what it demands. And some high-upside freshmen could fill in the rotation. If it all blends, the mix might surprise. And if there’s a year to hit the reset button, it’s when the rest of your rivals are doing it too.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Simply put, the unknowns are in abundance. Many of them might turn out to be positives, but it’s equally likely MU falls flat. Maybe Boogie Coleman’s shooting stroke regresses. Gordon might remain a poor spot-up threat. And Amari Davis’ mid-range scoring package might not translate against more athletic defenses. Even if MU does pick up the pace, offense still might be hard to come by, and that means making games into wrestling matches that this team tries to grind out late. It’s also what’s caused so many bumps over the last four years. If Martin can’t get the mixture right, the roster reset could be for naught.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


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.