How Did We Get Here?
That Missouri made it back to the NCAA Tournament in Cuonzo Martin’s first year was not a surprise.
That they did it with Michael Porter Jr. playing 53 minutes and scoring 30 points all season? Yeah, that was a surprise. Martin landed a commitment from Porter, one of the top recruits in the Class of 2017, shortly after taking the Missouri job last March. Hiring Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant coach certainly helped, and in addition to Michael, he also got younger brother Jontay Porter to reclassify and play for Missouri last season. After the Porters committed, two more four-star recruits — Jeremiah Tilmon and Blake Harris — also committed.
But probably the most important addition was graduate transfer Kassius Robertson, who became the team’s leading scorer with 16.3 ppg and shot 43.2 percent from three-point range. Robertson ended up being the biggest difference between Missouri’s awful 2016-17 team and its NCAA Tournament squad in 2017-18.
Now, Robertson is gone. So, too, are Michael Porter Jr. and Blake Harris, the latter of whom transferred out of the program at midseason. Jontay Porter withdrew his name from the NBA Draft, but is now lost for the season after tearing his ACL in a scrimmage. Not counting Jontay Porter, Missouri returns 38.3 percent of its possession-minutes from last season, and much of that is tied up in three remaining holdovers from Kim Anderson.
Thanks to the Porters, Missouri suddenly had a shot to contend in 2017-18 and took advantage of it, but this year the building process will begin in earnest. Missouri will rely on six newcomers along with the last of Kim Anderson’s recruits.
6’2” senior Jordan Geist is the kind of hard-nosed player that opposing teams (and fans) hate. A not-terrific athlete, Geist still managed to average 7.3 ppg on 51.9 percent from two-point range and 36.7 percent from three, to go along with 3.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He’s not a scorer but has been a steady presence as a combo guard for the past two years.
And now, Missouri adds a couple of guards to the mix who are probably more talented than Geist but lack his experience. Landing 6’5” freshman Torrence Watson was kind of a big deal; ask any Missouri fan about how their program has done recruiting St. Louis, and you’ll probably figure out why. Watson ranked 113th nationally in the 247 Sports composite and is the kind of player that Missouri has often struggled to keep at home. Missouri also got good news last week when Illinois transfer Mark Smith, a 6’4” sophomore guard, was granted a waiver to play immediately. Smith was a four-star recruit from the St. Louis area who started 18 games for Illinois a year ago, but seemed to fall out of favor in that program.
Three more freshmen will compete for playing time. 6’2” Xavier Pinson is probably the lone true point guard on the roster, which doesn’t make him a lock for playing time — Geist has been handling the point guard duties somewhat effectively for two years, and either Watson or Smith could handle it if needed. 6’4” Javon Pickett will come off the bench at shooting guard. Christian Guess was a very late addition to the signing class — he didn’t join the program until September — and will provide depth.
As a freshman, Jeremiah Tilmon was about what he was expected to be: a defensive stopper with a raw offensive game who was frequently in foul trouble. Tilmon started all 33 games for Missouri last year, but only played in 19.4 minutes per game; he fouled out 10 times and picked up four fouls in nine other games. He did shoot 56.4 percent from the floor — while not attempting a single three-pointer — and shot 52.6 percent at the foul line.
With Porter unavailable, it’s imperative that Tilmon is able to stay on the floor because the depth behind him is questionable at best. 6’10” redshirt sophomore Mitchell Smith is coming off an ACL injury, and 6’10” Reed Nikko has averaged 2.4 ppg and 2.2 rpg in two years at Missouri.
Alongside Tilmon, Missouri has 6’7” senior Kevin Puryear. Puryear played considerably less of a role as a junior as he’d played in the previous two years, largely because he didn’t have to: with better players around him, Puryear settled into a more comfortable role as the team’s fourth or fifth scoring option. He averaged 8.6 ppg as a junior but has scored over 1000 points in his career; now, with more question marks around him, he may have to assume a bigger role similar to his first two years on campus.
On the wing, Missouri has 6’8” sophomore K.J. Santos, who averaged 7.1 ppg and 4.2 rpg as a freshman at Illinois-Chicago two years ago. Santos attended Tallahassee Community College last year but did not play, preserving a year of eligibility. But there’s basically no depth behind Puryear and Santos, which suggests that Missouri will be playing small a lot, perhaps with a lot of three-guard offenses.
|11/9||at Iowa State|
|11/16||vs. Kennesaw State|
|12/22||vs. Illinois (St. Louis)|
|1/12||at South Carolina|
|1/19||at Texas A&M|
|2/16||at Ole Miss|
|2/26||at Mississippi State|
Missouri’s nonconference schedule is manageable, albeit with a bunch of potential traps. Iowa State should be better than a year ago; Temple, UCF, and UT Arlington are all possible land mines, and Xavier will be taking a step back from a year ago but should still be good. The good news is that those last four games are all at home. The Paradise Jam field isn’t great, but does have a potential Top 25 matchup with Kansas State.
In SEC play, Missouri will play Arkansas, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Tennessee twice. Aside from Tennessee, that’s about as easy of an SEC schedule as you can get.
The presence and availability of Michael Porter Jr. in the 2017 recruiting class made Cuonzo Martin’s rebuilding process a little different than it otherwise might have been. The idea behind the 2017-18 team was to leverage Porter to get an immediate bounceback, and it ended up working.
Now, though, the rebuilding process begins. Ironically, Martin’s second-year roster looks more like what you’d have probably imagined his first-year roster would have looked like. There are four freshmen on the roster, at least one of whom (Torrence Watson) is likely going to play an important role right away; so, too, is Mark Smith, a sophomore who was a transfer. Up front, Jeremiah Tilmon is a solid player, but Missouri lacks depth behind him. You can start to see where the future core of Missouri’s basketball program is going to come from, but the pieces around him are still mostly holdovers from the Kim Anderson era.
Without the Porters, and without Kassius Robertson (who really did save Missouri’s season after Michael Porter Jr. got hurt), Missouri seems likely to take a step back in 2018-19. That certainly doesn’t mean a return to last place, but it does mean that returning to the NCAA Tournament will be a tall task.