How Did We Get Here?
The initial excitement of the Cuonzo Martin era at Missouri has slowly been killed off by consecutive sub-.500 seasons, and that puts Martin squarely on the SEC’s warmest seat entering 2020-21 (at least, among coaches whose programs are not currently under NCAA investigation.)
It’s easy to blame the woes on injuries. Martin signed Michael Porter Jr., one of the top prospects in the country, almost immediately after taking the Missouri job; Porter played in exactly three games in his lone season in Columbia. His younger brother, Jontay, missed the entire 2018-19 season; Jontay Porter likely would have been the best player on that team. Last season, two Missouri starters — Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon — combined to miss 21 games to injury; certainly, this wasn’t comparable to losing your best player for an entire season, but it might have explained some underperformance; Missouri went 6-8 in the games that Tilmon missed.
But the excuses for prior seasons don’t really matter entering this year. It might have prevented Martin from building a strong case for continued employment, but this year should not have any excuses. The reason is simple: the defections fairy didn’t really visit Columbia over the offseason. Missouri only had one not-particularly-important senior on last year’s team. Three players declared for the NBA Draft — but all three pulled their names out and returned to Missouri. They did lose some players off the end of the bench, but nobody who figured to be in the rotation this season exited the program.
In other words: if not now, when? Cuonzo Martin may not have the SEC’s most talented team, but it’s an experienced group that returns eight of its top nine players and consists almost entirely of Martin’s own recruits. Missouri returns 87.6 percent of its possession-minutes from last year — the highest number in the SEC, and by a pretty significant margin — and it’s a group that’s reasonably talented. It’s also a team that couldn’t shoot (29.7 percent from three) and was ridiculously foul-prone. But eventually, you run out of time — and that clock typically runs out once the state of the program can no longer be blamed on your predecessor.
|Tray Jackson||8.1||2.9||1.8||0.1||0.1||0.2||transfer/Seton Hall|
|Mario McKinney Jr.||8.4||2.6||1.6||0.3||0||0||transfer/John A. Logan JC|
Reed Nikko is the only departure who played significant minutes for Missouri last season, and while he started 20 games, he only played 15.7 minutes per game and wasn’t much more than a big body who could occasionally score on a chip shot.
The remaining departures are mostly notable for what they might have developed into, particularly Tray Jackson, who was a top-100 recruit in the Class of 2019. Jackson appeared in 26 games and averaged 8.1 minutes per game — numbers that convinced him to transfer to Seton Hall in the offseason. I always say that you can tell a lot about what a team is losing in a transfer by where they end up, and losing a former top-100 recruit to a Big East school because he couldn’t get on the floor for your sub-.500 team is, to put it nicely, a bad look. As for the other two, Mario McKinney seemed to fall out of favor early last season, while it came as a shock to some of the Missouri fans I know that Axel Okongo was on scholarship.
This is a recurring theme in this preview, so I’ll say it again: everybody is back. For better or worse.
You probably didn’t hear much about him while playing for a mediocre Missouri team last year, but Dru Smith is a good player. His 4.0 Win Shares ranked 15th in the SEC, and his 2.1 steals per game actually led the conference, while also being the Tigers’ leading scorer. Still, his shooting percentages weren’t good — but he’s probably capable of better than this; he made 90 percent of his free throws, suggesting that his “true” talent as a three-point shooter is probably much closer to the 48.2 percent he shot at Evansville in 2017-18 than the 29.4 percent he shot last year. Jeremiah Tilmon, when healthy (and not in foul trouble), is a good shot-blocker, rebounder, and low-post scorer.
Those are two pieces. Surrounding them are a bunch of guys who have shown flashes but never anything approaching consistency. Xavier Pinson entered the starting lineup in February and immediately caught fire, averaging 17.3 ppg over the final 11 games. Was that the real Xavier Pinson, or was it the guy who had averaged 7 ppg over the previous year and a half? Sometimes, a player catching fire late in his sophomore year represents real growth, and like Dru Smith, Pinson is an excellent free throw shooter — suggesting he can probably improve on his 32.5 percent career three-point shooting. Mark Smith, if healthy — he’s missed a total of 20 games to injury over the last two seasons — gives Missouri a third competent guard, while Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson probably are what they are at this point. The latter two are more than likely depth.
Mitchell Smith — yes, Missouri has three players with the last name “Smith” — entered his name in the NBA Draft, a strange move for a guy averaging 5.1 ppg on a middling SEC team, but he’s back and will probably be Tilmon’s backup, though he can also play alongside Tilmon and gives Missouri a stretch four, though not a particularly good one. Kobe Brown was Missouri’s lowest-rated freshman in the 2019 class and yet started 26 games last season, suggesting that Cuonzo Martin saw something that wasn’t indicated in his 92.6 ORating.
|Ed Chang||Jr.||6'8"||215||285||transfer/Salt Lake CC|
Keeping with the theme: Missouri’s newcomers aren’t likely to make a big impact this year. The best player here is Drew Buggs, a graduate transfer from Hawaii — but as a pass-first point guard who isn’t much of a scorer, he doesn’t seem to fill any particular need for this Missouri team; perhaps moving Dru Smith off the ball is the goal here, but from all appearances Smith is a better point guard than Buggs.
The other two newcomers are much more iffy. Ed Chang averaged 8.2 ppg and 3.6 rpg at Salt Lake Community College, which doesn’t really suggest that he’s anything more than an extra body for an SEC team. Jordan Wilmore is 7’2” and chose Missouri over offers from Jacksonville State and Southern Utah, and… I’ll just leave it at that. Look, I’m trying to be nice here.
For a team returning basically everybody, Missouri’s starting five seems to be in flux — in large part because every one of the eight returnees started at least one game in 2019-20, and seven of them started at least 11. Of course, some of that had to do with injuries, and we can probably pretty safely assume that Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith will start if healthy. Dru Smith will start in the backcourt, and I’d bet on Xavier Pinson being a third starting guard, with Kobe Brown starting at the four.
That still leaves a pretty decent bench, with the three remaining returnees and Drew Buggs all picking up rotation minutes. It’s not clear where Ed Chang fits in, and I would bet on Jordan Wilmore redshirting, probably more than I would bet for any SEC player this season.
For better or for worse, these are Cuonzo Martin’s guys, and he’s rolling with them. That’s the main takeaway for a team that returns eight of its top nine players from last season and doesn’t really have any notable newcomers entering the fold.
The question, then, is how high the upside for this group is. When I put together my preseason rankings, I typically don’t cheat by looking at rankings from other outlets, but I do have to admit to getting a chuckle out of Blue Ribbon picking Missouri to finish 13th in the conference — because that projection simply doesn’t make sense. It’s not unheard of for a team that returns 87 percent of its production to regress from one year to the next, but that typically happens when you see a team that’s already pretty good and then hits its limit. Whereas I can’t make a plausible case that 2019-20 represented the ceiling for this group.
That said, aside from maybe Xavier Pinson, I don’t see anybody on this roster who appeared to be just scratching the surface of his talent last season. Perhaps just getting everybody healthy for a year will make a big difference, but for the most part, the players on this team are what they are at this point: decent players who might develop into pretty good players, along with one actual good player in Dru Smith. You can certainly make a case for improvement, but I can’t see enough of a case for improvement to better than a middle-of-the-pack SEC team and something like an 11-seed in the tournament.
The more likely case is that this team is marginally better than last year’s squad, but ends up getting passed by some other squads that added better players in the offseason (and, in some cases, might have gotten rid of some dead weight.) And that’s a dangerous situation for Cuonzo Martin, who probably could use some significant improvement in his fourth year. After all, this is his team now, and this roster is very experienced, with five seniors (including three fifth-year seniors!) and four juniors. In other words — if he can’t win with this roster, when, exactly, is he going to win?