Backcourt depth has Martin optimistic
This time last year, as Missouri kicked off practices for the 2018-19 basketball season, all the buzz centered around the Tiger forwards. The sophomore tandem of Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon figured to be one of the biggest (with both players listed at 6-foot-10 or taller) and best frontcourt duos in the SEC.
Of course, those plans were quickly derailed when Porter tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in a preseason scrimmage, ending his season before it began. His absence left a hole at the power forward spot that head coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff struggled mightily to fill as the Tigers limped to a 15-17 record.
A year later, with Porter gone from the program, Martin has a new plan for dealing with his second frontcourt spot: Eliminate it.
“I think in most cases we’ll have four guards on the floor,” Martin told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.
Martin added that he considers true freshmen Kobe Brown and Tray Jackson guards, even though both have the size to bang on the low block, with Jackson listed at 6-foot-8, 215 pounds and Brown at 6-7, 240. His point was that, instead of having two players in the frontcourt, he plans to field lineups with at least four players at any given time who can bring the ball up the floor, operate from the perimeter and knock down a three-point shot.
“I think in most cases we’ll have four guards on the perimeter, and I think in most cases we’ll have four guys that can make shots from three,” Martin said. “And I think if you put (junior forward Mitchell Smith) at the five, you have five guys that can consistently make three-point shots. That just really spreads out the defense.”
Martin’s personnel would seem to lend itself to his pace-and-space vision. With junior guard Dru Smith eligible to play this season after he sat out last year following his transfer from Evansville and Mark Smith set to return from a foot injury that cost him the second half of last season, Missouri’s backcourt should be deep. Both Smiths, Xavier Pinson, Torrence Watson and Javon Pickett all have college starting experience, and Martin praised freshman Mario McKinney Wednesday, saying he’s already shown a better shooting stroke than Martin expected. Martin hopes the wealth of options will allow him to mirror Florida State and head coach Leonard Hamilton, whose system Martin has spoken highly of since the Seminoles beat the Tigers in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
“Florida State, they can go nine, 10, sometimes 11 guys, and they just wear you down late in games,” Martin said. “I think we have the personnel to go nine, maybe 10.”
Martin’s players agreed that the backcourt depth will be a luxury, one they didn’t have last season. After Smith underwent season-ending surgery, the team’s regular rotation at the one through three positions consisted of four scholarship players, three of whom were true freshmen.
“I felt like at some point we kind of got a little banged up (last year),” Pickett said. “Being this deep, I feel like a lot more people are going to feel like they can play a little harder because they know that they’re going to have someone else coming in for them.”
The headliner of the Tiger backcourt figures to be Dru Smith, who has earned rave reviews from the coaching staff since he arrived on campus more than a year ago. Dru Smith is expected to start at the point guard spot vacated by senior Jordan Geist. Martin and his players were all effusive in their praise of Dru Smith Wednesday, especially his versatility.
“If he led us in scoring, I wouldn’t be surprised. If he’s fifth in scoring, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Martin said. “Just because he does so many other things, and I think that’s where his value is. He’s a complete basketball player. Can make the three-point shot, very intelligent player. At 6-3, 6-4, strong, can guard the four positions, can make the right play, makes the right decisions, makes big shots, can get to the rim.”
“He can finish through contact with either hand,” said Tilmon, who previously called Dru Smith the best distributor he’s ever played with. “It will be like some stuff you think he’s about to miss, but he finishes so accurately. And then you can’t leave him open because he’s going to shoot the ball.”
Pinson figures to rotate in at the point guard position as well, though Martin said not to discount the possibility of the two playing together. Martin praised Pinson, who often yo-yoed between making highlight reel plays and frustrating turnovers as a freshman, for his maturation during the offseason. His role could expand as a sophomore.
“Just the accountability of doing your job as a point guard, understanding what it means for everybody to get involved,” Martin said of Pinson’s improvement. “Almost like you’re the last guy to eat. And his last five days, he’s probably been as good as I’ve seen him these last five days, and really, he’s probably taken maybe two or three shots.”
Priority number one for Dru Smith, Pinson and the rest of the ball-handlers will be to cut down on turnovers, which have been the Tigers’ Achilles heel since Martin took over. Last year, Missouri’s turnover rate of 21.0 percent ranked No. 318 nationally. The season prior, the team finished No. 313.
The other objective is knock down three-point shots. There should be plenty of capable candidates. Mark Smith (who has not yet been cleared for live action during practices but said he anticipates being fine by the start of the season) led the SEC in three-point shooting percentage at the time of his injury a season ago. He finished the year making 45 percent of his shots from outside the arc. Watson found his stroke toward the end of the year, shooting 44 percent from deep in the team’s last seven games. Pickett and Mitchell Smith both showed the ability to make threes as well, and Martin believes Brown and Jackson will both bring outside shooting to the lineup.
Martin has placed increasing importance on the three-point shot since he arrived at Missouri. The Tigers ranked No. 78 nationally in three-point shooting percentage last season and No. 26 in 2017-18. That year, the Tigers attempted the most three-pointers in program history, and threes accounted for 45.6 percent of the team’s shots. At 41.2 percent, last season wasn’t far behind.
“If they’re open,” Martin said, “let them fly.”
All the chatter about the backcourt is not meant to indicate Missouri is going to ignore its post players. Martin maintained that Tilmon is still one of, if not the most important, players on the roster. But by surrounding Tilmon with four players whose shooting ability can space the floor, Martin hopes to give his big man more room to operate.
Tilmon is on board with the plan.
“They can’t double team no more,” he said of opposing defenses. “That’s going to be the biggest thing. If I’m getting the ball and they’re double-teaming, I’m kicking it out, and I feel like it’s going to be a guaranteed shot knock-down.”
The preseason is characterized by optimism for almost every program in the country. Martin is no different. A few times since last season, he’s stated his belief that the Tigers could compete for an SEC championship this season. He didn’t aim that high Wednesday, but he did say his roster, with its deep crop of ball-handlers and shooters surrounding Tilmon, had the makings of an NCAA Tournament team — on the condition that one trend from his first two seasons at Missouri doesn't repeat itself.
“I think this team has the parts,” he said, “barring any major injuries.”