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What we all want to see from Missouri basketball in 2021

2020 was as bumpy for Mizzou Hoops as it was for the rest of the country, but they finished strong! What does 2021 have in store?

NCAA Basketball: Liberty at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So the annual tradition of looking at the Missouri Basketball program on a calendar year basis is upon us again. It’s a fun process for me because instead of looking at the program’s seasonal success you’re looking more at the program health.

How many years in a row have I been doing this now? Let’s go to the count...

Sheesh.

So how did our expectations/hopes turn out for 2020 in comparison to reality? Let’s revisit:

  • Navigate the SEC schedule and find a way to 11 wins or more: Missouri finished with 11 SEC losses as they were tripped up early with a combination of a tough schedule and missed starts from Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith. But the recovery did provide a glimmer of hope at the end of the year.
  • Get to the NCAA tournament: There was no NCAA tournament thanks to the Coronavirus. But Missouri was not projected to be in the field.
  • Win some games in March (maybe just one): Missouri was 1-1 in March, as the last two regular season games were technically played in March... but that’s not what I had in mind.
  • Bring (nearly) everyone back next season, and improve: This they accomplished. While the interruption of the pandemic greatly impacted the offseason for a lot of teams, the lack of turnover in Mizzou’s roster gave them an early boost in the preseason as they were able to take down Oregon, Illinois, and Wichita State to go undefeated in the abbreviated non-conference season.
  • Take a big step forward early in the 2020-21 season: A big step was taken early. Missouri starts the 2021 calendar year as a ranked basketball team. We did watch them get blown out by Tennessee, which shows there’s still a lot of work to be done. But being ranked, no matter how deserving or not, is something that the program hasn’t seen since early 2014. It’s okay to celebrate that.

So where will things go in 2021? Here’s the wish list...

Finish in the top 4 in the SEC

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

Being ranked is nice, but there just aren’t many quality win opportunities in the league this year. Kentucky is down, and Mizzou’s best shot to take down the best team in the league came and went with a 20 point loss. But if the Tigers can manage a couple wins in their next three games they can put themselves in the drivers seat for a really solid finish in league play.

11-7 might get you into a top four finish, but that top four finish is coveted because of the double bye it affords you in the conference tournament. Preseason we picked Mizzou to finish 6th, and while Kentucky doesn’t look to get the team we thought, others have looked better, namely Arkansas.

The Hogs are up next, and they play really well at home. An 0-2 start isn’t what you want if you’re Missouri, but the schedule opens a bit after that. So 11 or 12 wins in conference still isn’t out of the questions (COVID might have a say also).

Get to the NCAA tournament with a good seed

A successful season for any team should be marked with an NCAA tournament appearance. For Mizzou it would be just the second in the last eight years. After Mike Anderson and Frank Haith combined to make five in a row, it’s been a long struggle to get the program back into regular tournament contention. But this team has what it takes to not only get there, but be a solid seed on top of it.

I think anything at the 8 seed level or above should be expected at this point, with a high capping out around 5 or so. But just being the favored team and playing in the NCAA tournament would be a very refreshing feeling for a fan base who have been ready for a palate cleansing year.

Last year I said:

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 postseason 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.

Part of the lack of success can be pointed out by simply noting where Missouri has been seeded. In Anderson’s last two years, Missouri was a double digit seed. Under Haith, the second trip they were a 9 seed. And Martin’s first year they landed an 8 seed (although that was generous considering how they limped to the finish... quite literally).

Facing roster turnover, Mizzou needs a big spring

For the first time in a few years, Missouri is really counting on significant roster turnover. There are five Seniors currently on the roster, and Martin and his staff have already inked five signees this past fall. Sean Durugordon is expected to make it to campus any day now, as he’s planned to be a mid-year enrollee.

There are some in and around the program who think this will be Xavier Pinson’s last in a Mizzou uniform as well, as he’s looking to explore professional opportunities. So with the potential of losing your top four scorers off the roster, and five of the top seven, Mizzou will need to replace some reliable scoring on the spring market.

mizzou basketball scholarship count 9-10-20

There are five signed and coming in, but the players returning to the roster from this past season don’t feature a lot of ball handling or scoring. So Martin will undoubtedly be on the scout for both.

The transfer market is likely to be pretty full with available talent this year, as the NCAA is lifting restrictions on transfers and eligibility. And Martin would be wise to go after a scoring guard he can plug into the lineup and get immediate production out of.

The good news is Missouri is no longer chasing roster stabilization. They still need do bring in some more talent, but Martin has seemingly fixed the revolving door that program used to be when Kim Anderson was flipping half the roster each year.

  • 2020 (Martin): 5 newcomers
  • 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

It’s healthy and normal to have some roster churn. But Missouri’s average length of time in the program was a bigger issue. After this season, Missouri will see Jeremiah Tilmon (4 years), Mitchell Smith (5 years), Dru Smith (3 years), Mark Smith (3 years), Drew Buggs (1 year), and possibly Xavier Pinson (3 years) move on. Once you’ve had some stability, it’s easier for the existing players to keep up the culture built around the program. So even with a bit of a reset next year, the culture within the program should still be very strong.

At least one recruiting breakthrough in the 2022 class

As usual, there are some pretty big name targets on the Tigers list in the 2022 class. There are 4-star forwards Aidan Shaw and Tarris Reed to start. Both have been atop the Tigers’ wish list for a few years now and both are instant impact players.

For several years now Mizzou has built a roster with players who are sticking around (for the most part), and that’s a positive sign. Now they need to move into the next phase, in landing instant impact talent like Shaw or Reed. And those two aren’t the only two instant impact players in the 2022 class Missouri has a shot with, there’s also:

  • Mark Mitchell, 5-star Combo Forward out of Kansas City
  • Isaac Traudt, 4-star Forward out of Nebraska
  • Ty Rogers, a 4-star Wing out of Michigan
  • C.J. Gunn, a 4-star Combo Guard out of Indiana

There are obviously others at this point, but Martin has put together a really great ‘Building Block’ type of class in 2021. And the 2022 class needs a star.

Navigate a potentially bumpy start to 2021-22

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

As we talked about the makeup of the roster for next year, it’s pretty likely that next season will have a lot of new faces. Without a go-to scorer on the roster things could get a little bumpy for Missouri. So how Martin and his staff navigate those things will set the tone as he begins to build the roster back.

Early contests with Illinois and Kansas are very likely to be difficult matchups, but if Mizzou can hold their own with a young and inexperienced roster, it will bode well for the programs expectations.

It’s no mystery that Martin’s first 3+ seasons at the helm have not gone as smoothly as we’ve all hoped. But with a healthy roster this year, and a group of players who seem engaged and excited to play together, you’re seeing a more finished product than we’ve had at Missouri in nearly 10 years. The key moving forward is to build that sustainably, so each year the expectations are the same: NCAA tournament team, compete for an SEC title.

A step back year every so often is okay, but it needs to be surrounded by the higher expectations of a once very proud program. And while Martin’s teams have missed the mark so far, he’s also finally got a team healthy enough to roll out his best chance each night. The next 12 months will go a long way towards showing Missouri fans what they can expect this kind of team regularly, and not dread the conference season where the team limps to a game on the first day of the SEC Tournament.