Mizzou hoops season reset: The good, the bad and the unknown
For much of the past two seasons, as his Missouri team scuffled around .500, Cuonzo Martin remained optimistic. If the Tigers could just stay healthy, he would say, they could compete with anyone.
For much of this season, a roster loaded with upperclassmen looked poised to prove Martin right. Missouri started the season 6-0 with non-conference wins over Oregon, Wichita State and Illinois. The Tigers picked up additional victories over Tennessee and Alabama during conference play. On Feb. 8, two days after having handed Alabama its first SEC loss of the season, Missouri’s record was 13-3, the Tigers sat in second in the SEC standings and they rose to No. 10 in both the AP and coaches’ polls. NCAA Tournament forecasters generally had the team pegged as a No. 2 or 3 seed.
But Missouri couldn’t sustain its hot start. The team lost five of its final seven regular-season games, finishing 8-8 in league play, which was good for seventh in the conference standings. The Tigers then lost to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. After earning a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament — the program’s second trip to the Big Dance in the past nine years — Missouri saw its season end with a 72-68 loss at the hands of 8-seed Oklahoma. The team will enter the 2021-22 season still looking to end the drought since its last tournament win, which came on March 19, 2010.
The biggest question facing Martin and his team is what the roster will look like eight months from now. While we don’t know exactly which players will opt to leave — everyone is technically able to return next season due to the NCAA’s ruling that this season didn’t count against players’ eligibility — it seems a safe bet that the Tigers will have to replace most if not all of their five seniors. Normal offseason attrition would suggest another player or two are likely to move on, as well.
Now that the season has come to an end, we look back at what went well for Missouri in Martin’s fourth season, what went wrong down the stretch and what needs the team has to address between now and next November.
1. Missouri returned to relevance. Prior to this season, the Tigers hadn’t beaten a team ranked in the top 10 at the time of the matchup since 2012. The team accomplished that feat three times this season. It had been seven years since Missouri had been ranked in the Top 25. It spent 11 weeks in the rankings this year. While it couldn’t necessarily manifest itself in the form of ticket sales due to the limited capacity crowds necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Missouri team generated the most excitement since at least 2017-18, Martin’s first season, and possibly 2012-13.
The wins in marquee matchups, in particular, provided the highlights of this season. A neutral-site win over then-No. 21 Oregon in the second game of the year helped build excitement. A victory over Illinois, ranked No. 6 at the time and an eventual 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, gave Missouri Braggin’ Rights over its rival for the third year in a row. The Tigers also avenged a loss to Tennessee in the first conference game of the year with a road win a few weeks later, then survived to beat Alabama on a game broadcast by ESPN. Missouri’s seven Quadrant I wins, tied for the 10th-most nationally, showed this team’s ability to rise to the occasion and deliver in big moments. While those wins didn’t ultimately lead to postseason success, they provided the type of moments this fanbase hasn’t experienced in a while.
2. Jeremiah Tilmon took the step a lot of fans had been waiting to see his entire career. The physically gifted big man had been up and down across each of his first two seasons, with the bad nights often caused by his proclivity to foul. He hit a low point last year when he missed 14 games due to a stress fracture in his foot. Even when he returned, the Tigers were better with reserve Reed Nikko starting in his place.
Last offseason, Tilmon rededicated himself to getting in shape and embraced his strengths as opposed to working to expand his game, and it paid off. He recorded career-best marks in points, rebounds, assists, minutes played, field goal percentage and foul rate. He fouled out of just three games and recorded eight double-doubles. His season averages of 12.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game earned him a spot on the all-SEC second team. Tilmon leaves Missouri as one of six players in program history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in his career.
3. As solid as Tilmon played, Dru Smith was even better. The old-school guard received so much hype during the 2018-19 season, which he sat out after transferring from Evansville, that many (this writer included) wondered whether he could live up to it while playing against better competition. Smith was always well-rounded and steady, but he added more offense to his game this season and earned inclusion on the all-SEC first team as a result.
Smith averaged nearly 11 field goal attempts per game this season, compared to 9.5 a season ago. Yet he shot the ball better: 44.2 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from three-point range. He wound up leading Missouri’s team in scoring, assists and minutes played. His defense remained a strength, as usual. He generally drew the assignment of guarding the other team’s best player, and he led the SEC in steals for the second season in a row. He was also named to the SEC all-defense team. All of that is to say nothing about his steady demeanor and team-first attitude, which always drew rave reviews from the coaching staff.
1. A common question over the past six weeks or so has been what happened to Missouri down the stretch. While the team’s slow finish to the season is likely due to a combination of factors, the most obvious one was a decline in the quality of the defense.
Martin has always been a defense-first coach, and for each of the two years prior to this one, it was the offense that generally let Missouri down. This season, however, the Tigers picked up the pace and improved from 150th in offensive efficiency in 2019-20 to 48th this season. Despite playing a significantly more difficult schedule, the team’s scoring average jumped from 67.1 points per game to 73.4.
The problem was that offensive improvement coincided with a regression on the defensive end, especially during the latter half of the season. During the first 12 games of the year, no Missouri opponent scored 80 points in a game, and the Tigers allowed an average of 66.4 points per contest. During the final 14 games, six opponents scored at least 80 points in a game and opponents averaged 76.6. The primary issue appeared to be allowing opposing ball-handlers to get into the lane, where they could score or create easier shots for teammates. Missouri finished the season ranked 55th in defensive efficiency, its second-lowest mark under Martin. Even an improved offensive team didn’t have the firepower to overcome the defensive deficiencies late in the season.
2. After looking like a potential all-conference player early in the year, Xavier Pinson regressed. The ball-dominant point guard was one of the reasons for optimism that this year would mark a step forward after he burst onto the scene late last season, declared for the NBA Draft and ultimately decided to return to school. While there were a couple clunkers thrown in there, during the first 16 games of this season (when the team started 13-3), Pinson averaged 14.7 points, 3.3 assists and 27.6 minutes per contest. Those numbers dipped to 11.9 points, 2.4 assists and 22.4 minutes in the team’s final 10 games.
Often during the latter half of the season, Pinson seemed too content to shoot from the perimeter rather than using his dynamic speed to attack the basket. That made the entire offense stagnant, which generally led to too many threes from a team that didn’t shoot them well. Martin expressed frustration with both that and Pinson’s one-on-one defense. While neither would admit it publicly, the battles over those two issues seemed to wear on both player and coach. By the end of the season, backup point guard Drew Buggs started playing more and more, culminating in Buggs playing 16 minutes in the second half against Oklahoma on Saturday night, while Pinson played just four. The problem for Missouri was that Buggs, who averaged 1.8 points and 1.9 assists per game, simply couldn’t provide the type of offense as Pinson.
3. That gets at a larger issue that plagued this team: a lack of quality depth. Missouri had three players average at least 12 points per game in Tilmon, Pinson and Dru Smith. Kobe Brown also took a nice step forward in his sophomore season, averaging 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest. But if a couple of those players had an off night, or the opposing defense simply took them away, the Tigers didn’t have a lot of players who could pick up the slack.
Mark Smith had a few hot shooting nights, especially early in the season, but he ultimately posted his worst marks since transferring to Missouri in points, rebounds, turnovers and three-point percentage. Javon Pickett saw his scoring dip for the third year in a row, and six of his seven double-figure scoring performances came during the first half of the year. Mitchell Smith had some nice moments but scored just 4.5 points per game while shooting 25 percent from three. Torrence Watson saw his role reduced to just 7.2 minutes per game.
The lack of production elsewhere on the roster made Missouri overly reliant on Dru Smith, Pinson and Tilmon. When any of those three players struggled, Missouri generally didn’t have the talent to overcome it.
This year, Missouri brought virtually every significant contributor back and was one of the most experienced groups in college basketball. Next year will almost certainly be the opposite, with several newcomers asked to take on sizable roles. The next few months will determine whether that’s a cause for fan optimism or concern.
The unknowns are multiple. Not only does Missouri not know who will replace the scoring of Dru Smith, Mark Smith and Tilmon next season, it’s currently undetermined how many players from the current roster will stick around, and thus how many openings the coaching staff will need to fill prior to next season. Missouri’s roster currently features five seniors: Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Mitchell Smith, Tilmon and Buggs. While none has yet publicly announced his plans for next season, it would come as a surprise if any opts to return. Tilmon, at a minimum, has spoken pretty openly about 2020-21 being his final year of college, and Martin said if any of the five wanted to return next season they would have to present to him a reason more compelling than simply wanting to delay entering the workforce by a year.
It would be a major upset if every underclassman on the roster returns to school, as well. Pinson, in particular, has always seemed likely to leave after this season given that he tested the NBA Draft waters a year ago. His lack of playing time at the end of the season only makes it appear more likely that he’ll move on. And given the abundance of transfers in college basketball, it would be unwise to pencil in the players who didn’t play much this season (Watson, Parker Braun, Ed Chang, Jordan Wilmore) as members of next year’s roster.
All of that is a long way to say that what type and how many players Missouri looks to add this offseason has not yet been determined. If the Tigers lose six players from the current roster (say, the five seniors and Pinson), it would have two scholarships to fill. Obviously, that number increases with every additional defection. But what does seem apparent is, with five high school prospects already set to join the team next fall, any open spots will likely go to players with college experience — either Division I transfers or junior college products. With the NCAA expected to pass a one-time transfer waiver in the coming months, it shouldn’t matter whether those players have graduated from their previous school or not.
The Tigers’ top positions of need appear to be a combo guard or wing who has proven an ability to score, a center and a primary ball-handler (particularly if Pinson leaves). The good news for Missouri is there are already plenty of players who have entered their name into the NCAA transfer portal. Martin has had some success finding players from the transfer ranks, too. Both Kassius Robertson and Dru Smith, the Tigers’ two most recent all-SEC first team selections, joined the team from another Division I school.
But landing transfers who can make an immediate impact has gotten more difficult in recent years, as the Tigers’ relative lack of success recruiting the transfer market last offseason showed. Virtually every school holds a spot or two open for transfers each year. Finding one player who can step in right away and take over as this team’s primary scorer will be a challenge. Finding two or three who can make an immediate impact will be even tougher.