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What we all want to see from Missouri basketball in 2020

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There’s 12 months of unknown ahead, with a lot of possibility.

NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Missouri
The man in the middle there could have a big impact on one very good thing happening in 2020.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tradition! After writing this feature each of the previous four years it only makes sense to keep the streak going and do a fifth. The 2019 calendar year for Mizzou Hoops was one that started with some promise but was mostly a year of non-news. But it doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything to talk about or expectations to fall short of!

We sort of settled on a title after the first year.

So how did our expectations/hopes turn out for 2019 in comparison to reality? Let’s revisit:

  • Find a way to .500 or better in conference play: Mizzou finished 6-12 and sputtered early in conference play derailing a promising December.
  • Get to the NCAA Bubble: Mizzou was far from the NCAA bubble after starting 2-8 in league play
  • Stop the roster bleeding completely: This actually happened! MU had just one player leave the program in K.J. Santos, two graduated, and only three newcomers made their way in.
  • Is it too much to ask to land ALL the top targets in the 2020 class? - Apparently, yes.
  • Take a big step forward in the 2019-20 season: So far the step forward has been minor. The defense is improved, the offense has struggled. Missouri is 50th in KenPom which is 18 spots better than a season ago, but down from where KP had them preseason (38th).

Overall you had to be pleased with the first full calendar year of Cuonzo Martin’s tenure. He built up the baseline of talent in the program, and still found ways to go 19-13 with a team half saddled with injuries and depth issues. Year two wasn’t easy to watch, but there felt like enough reasons to keep being hopeful as the team battled and got better as the season wore on. Calendar year number three is very important for Martin, as he’s got a roster full of his own players and things have sputtered a bit here early in the 2019-20 season.

So where will things go in 2020? Here’s the wish list...

Navigate the SEC schedule and find a way to 11 wins or more

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

Last season was disappointing, but understandable. The Tigers endured injury and inconsistency from their younger players and emerged 6-12 in conference. This season presents another opportunity because the league overall is much worse than in recent years. There’s a lot of room to move up the pecking order, and as we’ve detailed, Missouri is very close to being a team who could steal an extra game or two with more consistent offense.

If the Tigers, who as of now are projected to win 10 games per KenPomeroy’s site, could just pick up one win or more that would set them up to show the kind of progress we were hoping for and help forgive some of the late hiccups of 2019. For me, the target should be top 35 in Kenpom this year.

Get to the NCAA tournament

The SEC is in a precarious position. We knew there would be a drop off going into the season, but few were able to predict how steep of a drop off we would see. The challenge for Cuonzo Martin and company in getting to the NCAA tournament is the margin for error, which is at nearly zero in the SEC.

Missouri’s existing loss to Charleston Southern, and two quality wins against Illinois and Temple, put them in solid footing heading into conference play. But 11 wins is likely the minimum for an NCAA trip with the league as down as it is.

So to navigate the next 19 games with a so-so offense and a stellar defense and find your way to 12 wins would be a big step forward for where we want the program to be.

Win some games in March (maybe just one)

A decade of basketball just went by and Missouri won exactly 1 NCAA tournament game(s).

  • Missouri’s March winning percentage: 45.4% (20-24)
  • Missouri’s post-season winning percentage: 41.6% (10-14)
  • Missouri’s NCAA tournament winning percentage: 16.6% (1-5)

If you take out the Tigers Big 12 tournament championship run in 2012 those first few numbers are even worse. Basically Missouri had one really good March, and even that year things ended in disaster. But the bottom line is, the program not only needs to make it a habit of making the NCAA tournament with regularity, but also winning games in the post season.

At this point in the rebuild I don’t think anyone is asking for Final Fours or National Championship runs, but a couple wins here and there would be a nice change.

Bring (nearly) everyone back next season, and improve

If everything goes according to plan above, Missouri should finish within the top 40 of KenPom. Then with only Reed Nikko set to graduate, there isn’t a ton of room on the roster for new additions. Which is one of the main reasons why Martin only signed Jordan Wilmore in the fall (that and any of his top targets picking blue blood schools). Here’s the current scholarship graphic:

mizzou basketball scholarship count 9-29-18 wilmore

What’s funny about this... I feel like I used to update this graphic every month. I haven’t updated this since September when Wilmore committed. The roster has held steady, even as playing time has fluctuated for guys at the back of the bench. I think there’s some credit due for Martin for steadying the situation.

  • 2019 (Martin): 3 newcomers
  • 2018 (Martin): 6 newcomers
  • 2017 (Martin): 6 newcomers
  • 2016 (Anderson): 7 newcomers
  • 2015 (Anderson): 6 newcomers
  • 2014 (Anderson): 6 newcomers
  • 2013 (Haith): 8 newcomers
  • 2012 (Haith): 8 newcomers

Right now, the 2020 group is on pace to add just ONE newcomer. So with a low number of just four players in two cycles, that would be something we haven’t seen at Missouri in a long time.

There’s still a possibility of landing another player in the 2020 class, with Josh Christopher still available. And if Martin is still hunting for a wing there are a few other options he could pursue. We’ll address additional recruits in due time. But keeping any potential roster loss to the expected (Nikko) plus maybe just one additional spot would prove nearly miraculous in today’s age of the transfer portal.

Missouri will need a very active and loud off season with the 2021 class

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Perusing the scholarship graphic above, next season Missouri will have five seniors on scholarship (provided there aren’t any unexpected exits). So one way or another, Martin and his staff will have some holes to fill going into the 2021-22 season.

This means they’re going to have to sign at least three players in the fall, if not four.

This would also stand to go against the grain for how Martin has typically operated. His first fall he signed three in the early period, and last year he signed two. He hasn’t traditionally stockpiled talent in the fall, instead working a few recruits and then seeing how things flesh out in the spring.

While the 2021 recruiting class was slow to develop, there are real targets and guys Missouri is going to pursue and guys Missouri is going to need. They’re going to need to replace Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Mitchell Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon, and Axel Okongo.

I’d expect Tamar Bates, Jaden Akins (pictured above), and Pierre Brooks Jr., to remain prime targets. They’ve also worked hard early on top 50 point guard Hunter Sallis from Nebraska, and top 40 wing Malaki Branham from Ohio. Plus a few more players likely to become more prime targets in the spring.

But overall, Martin hasn’t quite made the recruiting splash originally hoped. He’s made his living in the 75 and over range, with only Tilmon still on the roster being a top 75 recruit. With a strong move this season, Martin could make an impression on the 2021 recruits and possible get the kind of breakout class needed to boost the program up another level.

Take a big step forward early in the 2019-20 season

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

It’s probably fair to say the infallible reputation Martin had with Mizzou fans has taken some hits recently. The loss to Charleston Southern is a big blemish, and they start to the season has been offensively stodgy. Maybe if a few results get flipped, a few more threes go in, we feel as though everything is on course. As it is, it still feels like they’re a little behind.

If the above happens you have to figure everyone will forget about the ugly trip to Kansas City for the Hall of Fame Classic and dropping an ugly home game to Charleston Southern. Regardless of what happens from the Tigers trip to Rupp Arena, to the opening tip off next November, the non-conference season for the 2020-21 season is where you want to see the next step forward.

Overall, the next 12 months are important for the future of Cuonzo Martin and his plan to build Missouri into a championship level program. You don’t expect everything in one foul swoop but you want to see progress. After this season you want to see the team ranked higher than they’ve been under Martin, then it’d be good to see them move past their high mark since joining the SEC. That mark was set year one when the Tigers landed at 25th.

Going from the 60s to the 40s or 30s and then into the 20s would show the kind of progress you want and expect from a coach making what Martin is making. Let’s see it get there.