Welcome to game week, Tiger fans! Yes, for both football and basketball!
We’re now just over 24 hours from tip on the 2021-2022 Mizzou Hoops season, which means it’s time to wrap things up on our preview content! Be sure to visit the preseason stream to catch everything from SEC team previews to specific analysis from the Matts. You can also catch up on our position specific roster previews at any of the links below.
- Mizzou Hoops Position Preview: Point Guards
- Mizzou Hoops Position Preview: Combo Guards
- Mizzou Hoops Position Preview: Wing
- Mizzou Hoops Position Preview: Combo Forwards
Today, we’re wrapping up our annual series by looking at what Mizzou’s got going on in the post. For the first time in four years, Jeremiah Tilmon won’t be a part of the team, and the Tigers are likely to miss him quite a bit. However, his absence means a lot of minutes are available. Can either of the traditional bigs grab a rotation spot early on?
In many ways, Jeremiah Tilmon was the heart of Mizzou’s program in 2020-2021, the first player to play all four years under Cuonzo Martin and develop into an All-SEC talent. What will Mizzou miss most in Tilmon’s absence?
Matthew Harris, Basketball Editor: There’s a compelling case to be made that voters got it wrong picking Colin Castleton for the All-SEC team. Does this roster have an all-conference big waiting in reserve? I think we all know the honest answer.
After dominating TCU, I wrote that Tilmon, at last, fulfilled his potential but that he was also a beneficiary of coach Cuonzo Martin’s schematic pivot. Playing off Tilmon in the post, with slow-developing off-ball screening unfolding around him just wasn’t the way to go. But leveraging the big man’s mobility as a roller, letting him slide into the short corner for dump-offs, and bust it on rim runs was a smarter way to go.
The result: Tilmon put up 1.408 points per possession on plays around the rim that weren’t post-ups, efficiency that ranked in the 99th percentile nationally, per Synergy Sports tracking data. And at the other end, Tilmon led MU in defensive efficiency (0.731 PPP) and ranked eighth in the SEC for block rate (5.3%) while only averaging 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes. No matter how optimistic you are about this roster, there’s not another player of Tilmon’s caliber ready to slide in and absorb his role.
Parker Gillam, Basketball Beat Writer: The biggest problem this team will come across this season is not having opposing defenses distracted by the presence of Jeremiah Tilmon. The veteran saw consistent double teams and was usually topic #1 on the opposition’s scouting report. Through this, guys like Xavier Pinson and Mark Smith were able to get quality looks from the outside. Nothing against Pinson and Smith, but they do not put up the 3-point numbers they did if Tilmon isn’t controlling the paint.
How Mizzou combats this is my biggest question mark. At least for the start of the season, there will not be a post threat that other teams fear. That means no double teams, and no special talents that other programs have to prepare for. Do the Tigers have the talent to make up for the loss of Tilmon’s intimidating presence?
Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: Tilmon’s improvement at Mizzou was, to borrow a term from the 2000’s coaching staff, remarkable. From fouling out in a pre-season Border War scrimmage despite being allowed 7 fouls to completing the rare hockey line change without checking in against UCF in Orlando, Tilmon went from a raw prospect to an All-SEC caliber big man and team leader. When you want an example of what hard work and dedication can do in a D-I program, Tilmon should be Exhibit A.
We are privy to what the 2021 version of Mizzou basketball looked like in Tilmon’s absence late last year. During those trying times for him personally, Mizzou shuffled lineups trying to find the answer for the hole left in the lineup. That gap led to an overtime loss to Arkansas and a late game barrage by Georgia and two costly losses. The issue then becomes, how to avoid that in 2022?
Tilmon was a bit of a unicorn in college hoops played in 2021, especially in the fast-paced SEC. Despite his efficacy as a roll-man on ball screens, he still saw 48.8% of his possessions come from post up opportunities. That ranked highest in the SEC (with only 7 players north of 30%). There just aren’t that many traditional, back-to-the-basket bigs. So if you don’t have that one, redesign the offense to where that’s not a significant component. Using a football analogy, if you don’t have an all-league running back, you shift away from giving one player 30 carries a game... though I’ll let the football staff attack that one next summer.
Yaya Keita was a key commit in the 2021 recruiting class, and the big seems to have recovered from an injury that kept him out of his senior high school season. With the post being wide open in terms of minutes, can the local product snag some early minutes in 2021-2022?
Matthew Harris: Why not? There’s no clear incumbent for a headlining role in the post. Assuming Keita’s healthy, the DeSmet product showed at the prep level he’s comfortable running the floor, catching and driving from the elbow, active on the glass, and strong enough to dislodge and front opposing bigs. The only critique: he’s not as polished at scoring out of a traditional touch on the block.
Yet, that might not be a hindrance. If MU wants to continue evolving as a pace-and-space outfit, a post like Keita that can pop, roll, attack out of face-ups, and finish in the short corner has value. While he might be slightly undersized for a big, MU has other capable rebounders in Javon Pickett, DaJuan Gordon and Kobe Brown to assist on the glass. Meanwhile, Keita could also play alongside a bouncy rim protector in Trevon Brazile or in a twin-post lineup alongside Jordan Wilmore.
There’s going to be growing pains at this position, and I’d want to place my bet on the player with the most skill. For now, I think Keita represents the best option.
Parker Gillam: There is no reason why Keita can not be a rotational guy on this team. The obvious reason is that there are no other proven contributors at this spot, but Keita has a skillset that can make him a fan favorite. He does not have the size or skill to be a consistent threat on the block yet, but when he is on the floor, I expect MU to push the ball a lot. Keita is a great athlete that can put pressure on opposing bigs to always get back on defense.
On top of that, I think he can be utilized as a solid distraction for the offense as well. If Cuonzo Martin opts to go small-ball with Keita at the 5, then he can stretch outside and take the main paint defender with him, opening up lanes for driving guards and wings. The opposing big would have to respect him, because Keita is a solid ball handler and slasher in his own right.
Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: I’m not a proponent of analyzing a player based solely on what programs show interest. However, there are situations where you take notice. Keita was being recruited by West Virginia prior to his commitment to Mizzou. Taken together with preliminary review of high school film, an image of what type of player to expect is forming. Athletic. Rugged. Relentless rebounder and defender. Those are all terms you expect out of a Bob Huggins big man, and are ones that I think are apropos here.
My main question early on: Is he healthy? He sustained an ACL injury roughly a year ago. While he’s been full-go in practice, he’ll still be sporting what could be described as a bulky brace. Recovering from injury is not simply a matter of “getting healthy.” From a physical perspective, it implicates lost development time and potentially a loss of feel and/or confidence in the game.
What we do know about Keita from his life story is that he’s a special person. He has worked incredibly hard to get where he’s at. Assuming he’s attacked his rehab process with that same vigor, we should expect him to be (mostly) ready for the start of the season. If that’s the case, I would expect him to log some fairly heavy minutes off the bat. When Mizzou looks to have a traditional post in the game, he’s my bet for that role. If they look to play “smaller,” Keita has the ability to stray from the block and play a more open style of basketball, whether as a roller on ball screens or even potentially on pick and pops. The mixture of necessity and ability puts him in position for a healthy amount of playing time.
Jordan Wilmore still holds the team designation as biggest dude around, but the post man couldn’t find consistent playing time in his freshman year. How does he fit into the rotation in year two?
Matthew Harris: When you see Wilmore, you can see reports that he’s shed 70-plus pounds aren’t an exaggeration. The sophomore looks svelte, but is he lighter on his feet? Improved mobility and lateral agility would help him as a roller out of ball-screens, and when guarding them at other end. (This assumes MU doesn’t just have him hang in drop coverage.)
I’ll admit that Wilmore’s a confounding presence. Over the last two seasons, MU’s curbed its post-up possessions on offense and shifted away from a pack-line inspired defense that keeps everything in front. Martin’s roster overhaul only reinforced the idea he covets long and versatile personnel. There will be nights and matchups where a traditional big proves handy — Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe or Mississippi State’s Tolu Smith — but I do wonder if Martin’s evolution puts a cap on Wilmore’s utility.
Parker Gillam: In hind-sight, it appears that Wilmore was just a bit out of shape to play significant time in 2020. First and foremost, let’s not blame the kid. Coming out of high school, it is very tough to know what all to expect from a physical and mental level in the college game.
With a changed body, Wilmore can be on the floor more. As a smaller team, this Mizzou squad will be looking to push the tempo and keep teams on their heels, a trend Martin has leaned towards in recent years. That is the major aspect of this program working against Wilmore. If his weight loss leads to improved athletic ability, then this should not be a concern for him.
The role he should slide into is a traditional post spot. I know Martin has trended away from this, as has most of college basketball, but it is very rare that a great team just has no post presence at all. If Wilmore can give you 6-8 points and 7-9 rebounds per game, then he will have an argument for starter’s minutes and prove that he is capable of battling with SEC bigs in the paint.
Matt Watkins, Guest Speaker: Coach Martin has long spoken with effusive praise for Leonard Hamilton and his work at Florida State, and rightly so. Mizzou has taken steps in that direction, recruiting lengthy athletes who can run, jump and defend the daylights out of the ball. Another constant on those FSU teams has been at least one seven footer who serves as a defensive anchor on defense and an imposing “dunker” on offense. Most of those larger than life Seminoles average between 15-25% of minutes played, or in basic terms, 6-10 minutes a game. There are occasions where FSU has had multiple players that qualify, and their cumulative minutes range upwards of 20 minutes per game.
With Wilmore, you have to give him immense credit for redeveloping his structure in the offseason. There’s no doubt about Mizzou’s intentions of wanting to play an uptempo style of play. Martin has seemingly left his roots behind in West Lafayette, in that regard. To be capable of playing in that format, Wilmore needed to reimagine himself. And how that plays out? To be determined.
I would imagine that the philosophy will be similar to Hamilton. Use the big man in spots where you’re facing a traditional post and may be under-equipped to handle it otherwise, say against a Kofi Cockburn type. There may also be stretches where you can seek to exploit the advantage offensively against a physically small team. It’s really a complete unknown due to the roster overhaul, systematic evolution and his work in the offseason. Without the Florida State comp, and even then really, it’s almost entirely guesswork. Still, it’s a fascinating topic to watch unfold.