New-look Mizzou hoops roster to feature more pace, balance
Part of Missouri’s basketball practice Wednesday looked more like a track workout, except instead of being triggered by a gun shot or whistle, the sprints started with an inbounds pass.
Five Tiger players took the floor. A designated inbounder tossed the ball to a guard, and all five sprinted the length of the court, practicing a fast break on air. As soon as someone made a layup, the inbounding player grabbed the ball out of the net, never letting it hit the hardwood, and the players started sprinting the other way. The process repeated itself, up and down the court five times in about 30 seconds.
With nine new scholarship players added via the high school ranks or the transfer portal, this iteration of the Missouri basketball team remains mysterious. Wednesday, Cuonzo Martin and his players provided a few glimpses of what to expect from the 2021-22 Tigers. Among them: more pace.
“Even faster than last year,” Martin said before his team held an open practice. “We’re working on it, no doubt. As fast as you can go, almost running through that wall. We want to go fast. You want to be fast, but you want to be efficient. You still have to take care of the basketball. We work toward that every day.”
Martin has talked during each of the past several offseasons about modernizing his scheme, about putting five players on the floor who can man multiple positions on offense and guard anyone on defense. He has teased a system that spreads out opponents with four or five players on the perimeter and gets out in transition at every opportunity.
Losing each of his team’s top four players in both scoring and minutes played during the offseason might finally allow him to complete the transformation. Missouri played at its fastest pace of Martin’s tenure last season, ranking No. 167 nationally in tempo after residing in the bottom 100 teams during his first three seasons. Javon Pickett, the team’s lone senior, said he expects to crank the speed up another notch this year.
“We’re going to play fast,” Pickett said. “... We got a lot of guards that’s able to jump, we got Trevon (Brazile), of course, above the rim, we got other bigs above the rim. So that’s going to be fun, being able to get out in transition, get those dunks, those easy baskets.”
One of the other adaptations Martin and his players alluded to Wednesday was a more balanced team thanks to its versatile personnel. A season ago, Missouri funneled its offense through Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith in the backcourt and Jeremiah Tilmon down low. Each of those three players touched the ball on at least 21.9 percent of the team’s possessions, the three highest marks on the team.
This year, Martin envisions a more evenly-spread offense when it comes to both ball-handling and scoring. There’s no true point guard on the roster, but Jarron Coleman, Anton Brookshire, Amari Davis, Dajuan Gordon and Sean Durugordon can all handle the ball. Likewise, the only player who profiles as a traditional, back-to-the-basket center would be sophomore Jordan Wilmore, and even he has transformed his physique since last season, losing weight and increasing his mobility so that he can fit into the faster-paced scheme.
Junior Kobe Brown believes that, while this team may not have a go-to guy, a handful of different players are capable of taking advantage of a favorable matchup and leading the way in scoring on any given night.
“This year, I feel like it’s going to be more of like everyone is going to have to contribute in order for us to win,” Brown said. “I don’t feel like, I feel like it won’t be just one, two or three, or whatever, however many guys doing all the scoring. I feel like it will be all of us, and it should be fun to watch.”
Of course, this team is still coached by Martin, so one of its hallmarks will remain the same. Asked about the squad’s identity, Brown, Pickett and Martin all mentioned defense. The Tigers slipped a bit on the defensive end during the latter half of last season. After allowing an average of 66.4 points through its first 12 games, Missouri surrendered 76.6 points during its final 14 contests. Martin said this team “has to be elite in that department.”Brown believes having more versatile, athletic personnel should help. The length and shot-blocking ability possessed by many of his teammates will disrupt opponents, he said, and the ability to switch five different ways should make it easier to avoid a mismatch.
“We’re definitely more versatile this year,” said Brown. “It’s actually fun just being able to guard everyone on the floor, everyone is switching everyone. It’s less to think about, if everyone can do everything. So it should be interesting.”
Missouri’s roster makeover will likely come with some early-season growing pains. After the Tigers ranked 11th nationally in experience a year ago, the team must replace nearly 80 percent of both its scoring and minutes played. Martin said practices have featured more five-on-five scrimmaging than in seasons past because the players simply need experience playing alongside one another. He’s starting to see roles solidify, but acknowledged that you never truly know what you have until you see how players handle game settings. Missouri does plan to play two closed scrimmages before it opens the season on Nov. 9 against Central Michigan.
But Martin said he’s been energized by the change, and once the team irons out the kinks, he believes his personnel will be well-suited to finally embrace the style of play he’s been eyeing for years.
“I think you have the parts,” he said. “It’s just going through it. Whenever that adversity hits, you like to go through it, you like to see it in a scrimmage, then you come back to the drawing board, okay here’s the things we need to tighten up, here’s the things we need to get better at and then sometimes you scratch some things that doesn’t really work.”