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What KJ Santos transfer means for the future of the Tigers roster

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KJ Santos is out, there’s a long way to go before next season starts but I feel like we know where this roster stands.

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

Where were you when the news of KJ Santos broke?

It was actually Thursday night when a source contacted me with the news. Santos had talked to Cuonzo and requested a release. The first sense I had was of relief. I have a sense where I don’t like to bag on players, they’re college students within a corrupt system and I genuinely want them to do what’s best for them.

Realistically, if you watched K.J. play this year nothing looked right. Whether he was struggling with health, the fit, his role, or just not good enough, it didn’t matter because any minutes he played felt like they were minutes lost. Heading into a new season I feel like there is real reason for optimism amongst Missouri fans in most of the corners of the roster and it was hard seeing K.J. fitting into a role on a young team with newly imported talent.

Was he going to fit as a combo forward and steal minutes from Tray Jackson? Mizzou coaches love Jackson and the potential he brings.

Was he going to fit as a jumbo wing and steal minutes from Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson, and Mark Smith? Unlikely because all three of those players proved they could play last season and are more effective at catch and shoots.

So Santos is gone, and Missouri moves on. What does the scholarship situation look like?

mizzou basketball scholarship count 4-12-19

It’s strange sometimes how clear things get by just removing one scholarship over the next few years. The rising junior class of Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Mitchell Smith, and Jeremiah Tilmon is a crowded one. But I think it helps clear up the 2020-21 season more if things play out the way we think they might.

If you notice, I’ve left off Ronnie Suggs and Parker Braun, we’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to look at the positional breakdown by year.

position year depth 4-12-19

This view shows a little balance, but also a bit of a hole in the combo forward position. We know Mitchell Smith will get minutes there, but he’s also struggled defensively on post players and more athletic fours, so it’s tough to slate him in. Mark Smith is also as comfortable on the wing as he is as a secondary ball handler, which you can’t quite say about Watson or Pickett at this point.

Here’s a quick stab at the depth chart.

mizzou basketball depth chart 4-12-19

I think Watson-Pickett on the wing will be an interesting storyline. Watson’s awakening down the stretch showed a much higher ceiling, but Pickett’s work ethic and trust from the coaching staff mean I’m not ready to slide him off the top line just yet. Pickett earned the starting spot this year and I’ll probably keep him there until I see otherwise.

There are twelve total players on this depth. Which leads me to this:

On the first part, Matt Harris and I have been working hard to try and determine who, if anyone, Mizzou is recruiting this spring. Our findings have been sparse.

Cuonzo Martin and his staff largely work in stealth, making it much more difficult for recruiting reporting to occur. So you pool resources and contact AAU coaches and players and piece together what you can.

Here’s who we know are on the spring target list:

Eric Williams Jr. (he’s visiting this weekend)

End of list.

There are other names who’ve popped up on the radar but we haven’t seen them on campus or heard of visits or seen Mizzou follow through on contact.

The list includes Myron Gordon and some guess work. I hoped they’d reach out to Justice Sueing but so far no dice. They touched base with Western Michigan grad transfer Bryce Moore, and since then gone radio silent. There’s been a few other’s who have touched base with Mizzou, but nothing definitive enough to report and the contact rarely goes beyond initial conversation. In a way it could be summed up by what Cuonzo Martin told Gabe DeArmond on the PowerMizzou podcast recently:

Nobody plays anymore than 10 guys. And I’ve said it before... you’re talking about 13 scholarship players, so those last three guys are guys that are young, or guys that need to redshirt, or guys who are injured. But you have to be careful when you get 13 guys on scholarship and make them understand that not everybody is going to play. So you have to be happy in your role and know you’re going to grow into this role if you want to be a part of the team.

I’ve gone the last few seasons with 12 guys on scholarship, and not intentionally, but I’ve told my guys, I don’t want to bring a guy in just to have him in. Because often times if you haven’t build the relationship he’ll probably be leaving after the season is over.

More than anything I think this speaks to the current situation with Missouri this spring. Here’s what we know:

Dru Smith is going to play. Torrence Watson and Mark Smith are going to play. Jeremiah Tilmon will start, Reed Nikko will back him up. Javon Pickett will play a lot, Xavier Pinson will play a lot. Both freshman, Marion McKinney and Tray Jackson, expect to be big factors. Mitchell Smith came on late as well, that’s 10 guys.

Mizzou has been looking for high rebounding wings to filter in with the 11th spot, but for the 12th and 13th they’ve got two guys on the roster who want to be there in Ronnie Suggs and Parker Braun. Suggs was put on scholarship, and Braun has been talked about as being put on scholarship. Could that be the 13?

I want to make something clear right now

I’m not advocating this as a strategy. My job here is to read the tea leaves and analyze, and this is what I think Cuonzo and his staff are doing.

They’ve found the guys they want and think they can add one more and be good for 2019-20.

I’ve been told they need a big, when they really don’t. Mizzou was one of the best rebounding teams last year with the group they had, they add two very athletic freshmen and get older, they should be better. I don’t think they need size.

However, I do think I’d feel a little bit better with an experience combo guard and an experienced combo forward on the roster to fill out some spots. If all things were equal, I’d pursue someone like T.J. Holyfield from Stephen F. Austin, a Chris Clarke from Virginia Tech, or even an Alihan Demir from Drexel to compliment Tray Jackson at the four spot. And I’d go after someone like Jaevin Cumberland from Oakland to fill in on the wing.

Personally, I’d feel a little better about the depth with the experience, and the grad-transfer route has worked before AT Mizzou FOR Cuonzo, so I guess I just don’t entirely agree with the strategy.

I don’t have to agree with it to understand it, and I do think Parker Braun can be a high major contributor because of his skill set. I’m just not sure if the combination of Braun with Mitchell Smith is enough with a freshman in Jackson to man the minutes Missouri needs next year, if they want to get back into the tournament. It’s putting a fair amount of pressure on a freshmen, regardless of how talented he is.

I do understand being more risky with the guards because of the high level of play we’ve seen from Mark Smith and Watson, and the expectations for Dru Smith. But I’d rather err on the side of caution with a more experienced guard than bet on Pinson taking the next step and Pickett remaining healthy. And even Mark Smith is a question mark with his health considering his recent surgery.

K.J. Santos transfer clears the path — a bit — for the roster layout

If Mizzou can land Eric Williams you have to feel good about the future at the wing position. I love the idea of taking a transfer with a high upside each spring, provided it’s someone you have a previous relationship with and who you can afford to let sit out for a year. It still leaves you with 12 scholarship players. The competition for Williams appears to be Oregon, Nebraska, and Michigan but I like Mizzou’s chances.

We all know the targets in 2020, and while the list will likely grow over the coming weeks, the focus will remain the same.

Santos was likely going to struggle to carve a role with the team Missouri had next year, so it makes some sense he’d want to move on. We’ll soon be hearing from Jontay Porter on his decision which most think will be to turn pro permanently. And with that we have what I’ve written above. A roster of 10 players, two walk-ons who’ll probably earn scholarships, and a transfer Missouri will hope to pry away from the hands of Oregon, Nebraska and Michigan.

We’ll keep a close watch on the happenings, and track down what we can. But this is how I read the situation as it stands right now. Hell, for all we know Cuonzo might be in hot pursuit of Jordan Brown at this point. Who know?! Enjoy the Spring Game everyone.