Mizzou basketball, the Resurrection

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Cuonzo Martin returned to the Midwest to take over what seemed like an impossible task of turning around a program that had seen its darkest days under Kim Anderson:

  • worst win percentage (.284) of any coach in Mizzou history
  • TWO 13-game losing streaks
  • 0-30 in true road games (2-41 away from Mizzou Arena)
  • 8-46 SEC record
  • first SEC program with three straight 20-loss seasons
  • Last year’s 24 losses were the most ever by a SEC program

It was a long fall for the Tigers, and we all expected a long, slow, rebuild after Anderson. Instead, the Martin hire brought hope for Missouri fans, and after what we had endured over the last three seasons, it’s all you could ask for.

Then, he put together one of the nation’s best recruiting classes with six newcomer scholarship players, including the nation’s top recruit, Michael Porter, Jr.

Missouri basketball could dig itself out of the abyss right away. A team that had three guys last year, is all of a sudden a deep team with a lot of roster flexibility. Martin said he plans to go at least 9 deep in the rotation, and 11 players could play on most nights, as was the case in Friday’s 74-59 win over visiting Iowa State.

A team that won 25 games over the last three years and just eight games last season, now has the sixth best national title odds. What an offseason!

As we got out first look at the new-look Tigers tonight, one thing that stuck out to me was they are so much more than Michael Porter, Jr. He played just two minutes (1-1 FG, 2 rebounds), scoring 2 points before leaving with a hip injury. It didn’t matter, as Missouri was never really challenged by Iowa State in front of the first sellout crowd in four years at Mizzou Arena.

Also taking into account the exhibition/preseason, where Missouri faced Kansas, losing 93-87 after leading 44-40 at half, to the nation’s Preseason No. 3, lost to Wisconsin by 8 in a “secret scrimmage” in Illinois and beat little brother Missouri State by 19, they’ve had a nice barometer so far. And, they’re really good. They’re going to lose some games they shouldn’t, because of their youth, but they’re going to win a lot of games – enough that they’ll challenge winning as many games this year as they had won in the previous three seasons (25).

Prediction: 25-6 (13-5); 2nd place SEC

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Missouri is deep with a lot of roster flexibility and loaded with talent, so who starts and who doesn’t really won’t be a huge deal. They’re also a much better shooting tea after ranking 330 out of 351 D1 teams last year in 3-point shooting.

PG Kassius Robertson (6-3, 180): Known as a lethal 3-point shooter (.403 career shooter), the grad transfer for Canisius surprisingly started at point guard on Friday, despite spending his entire career off the ball. He is the type of player Missouri desperately needed (a true catch and shoot) during the Anderson era and provides the veteran experience that this roster does not have a lot of.

SG Cullen VanLeer (6-4, 208): I have no idea why the so-called 3-point marksmen (only .305, but was better at .333 in 2016-2017) was in the starting lineup for the opener. Dude couldn’t even start on two bad teams. That said, he did only play 15 minutes. A 3-and-D lite guy, the junior will be asked to hit some 3’s for this team from time to time, but if I had to bet money, I would say VanLeer is not starting in a few months and could find himself outside of the rotation, fighting for occasional inconsistent minutes.

G/F Jordan Barnett (6-7, 215): The Texas transfer was instant offense off the bench a year ago, displaying a knack to light up the scoreboard. Now, his role will be the same, but he’ll have it much easier finding looks. Now a starter, Barnett flourished, scoring 15 points, including 3 for 7 from downtown displaying his range and a couple dunks showcasing his athleticism.

F Michael Porter, Jr (6-10, 215): The freshman phenom is a Preseason All-American – only the fifth such Mizzou player and the projected No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. A natural wing with Kevin Durant comparisons, Porter will started at the 4 on Friday in efforts to take advantage of less-athletic defenders and he has the length and athleticism to protect the rim – a nightmare for opponents. With his insane upside and scoring ability, it’s easy to envision him playing all over, offensively. Another plus with him playing the 4, if opponents switch on the pick and roll, he’ll have a smaller guard on him, something he’ll easily be able to exploit.

Although not in real games, he has shown some Black Hole tendencies – something to watch when the real games start. We won’t know much on that, yet. He played the first two minutes before leaving with a hip injury on Friday and will not play tonight against Wagner in hopes that he is ready for Thursday’s showdown at Utah.

C Jeremiah Tilmon (6-10, 252): Martin stole Tilmon, the fellow East St. Louis native, from Illinois and the dude is a monster. He was easily the best player on the floor against Iowa State, dominating both sides of the floor (14 points on 7 of 9 shooting, 7 rebounds). He will control the glass this year, and has a surprising soft touch around the rim. And, the dude finishes strong with dunks. MONSTER. He seems to be better than expected already, and his ceiling is really high. NBA player.

Bench

F Kevin Puryear (6-7, 238): Statistically the best player in each of the last two seasons (11.7 PPG, 5.4 REB), the combo forward is, for now, coming off the bench, and with a lot less pressure on his shoulders, Puryear can just go out there and play and be an efficient player off the bench for Martin. He’s one of the best five players on the team, and will see plenty of playing time and will be on the floor a lot at the end of the game – something my high school coach said was more important than who is out there at tip-off.

He’s a skilled offensive player, who was a natural wing coming out of high school, but has spent most of his time at the 4 in his collegiate career. His defense still lacks, especially down low against guys that outsize him. He has struggled around the rim some in his first two years, missing too many bunnies, but he has shown ability to catch and shoot and a nice midrange game.

How will KP adapt to his new role? The initial answer, using Friday as our evidence, is yes, as he excelled as the first guy off the bench, leading all scorers with 17 while adding 8 rebounds, getting some extra run due to Porter, Jr’s departure.

F/C Jontay Porter (6-11, 240)

The other half of the Porter Bros. was healthy and well Friday, and looks to be a hell of a presence inside defensively. It’s hard to tell what type of player he is offensively. He drilled a 3 from the corner in his first collegiate shot and didn’t spend much time down low on that side of the ball. The 17 year-old should still be a high school senior and looks to be an unpolished stretch-four or five. Will continue to develop as the season progresses.

PG Terrence Phillips (5-11, 185): Phillips, like Puryear, is a returning 2-year starter that is being asked to take on a lesser role. It comes as a bit of a surprise for Phillips, as he is the truest of point guards on the roster, and it is for that reason that I think Phillips should be the starter. However, he was the third point guard into the game on Friday, where he only logged nine minutes. We’ve probably over-valued Phillips so far because he was on a really bad team and he developed some bad habits, as a result, trying to make things happen – fouls away from the basket, turnovers and some bad shots.; but surrounding him with more talent should help mitigate those concerns.

Initially in exhibition season, Phillips was the backup PG to freshman Blake Harris, whom clearly has a higher ceiling that Phillips. TP struggles on the defensive side of the ball, where as Jordan Geist, who was Phillips’ backup a year ago but played 15 more minutes on Friday, is a strong defender, which speaks volumes to Martin’s commitment to defense. Phillips has seen some time off the ball, which could earn him some additional playing time. He has turned into a surprisingly decent 3-point shooter (.346) and leading the team (.356) last year. He hit his only attempt on Friday.

PG Jordan Geist (6-2, 180): As mentioned above, Geist, at least in the opener against a legit opponent, entered the game first and played more minutes than TP. He is certainly an in-your-face defender and is chippy. He is on the court for those two reasons. He can score here and there (5 points Friday on two shots), but his best attribute is getting under the skin of opponents. He’s that player that fans love to hate. Every team needs “that guy.” Effort will never be a problem.

G Blake Harris (6-3, 195): The 4* recruit was the starter in the exhibition against Kansas, but the combo guard came off the bench against Iowa State. He’s had a bit of a wrist issue that could have slowed his development. Harris is not a great shooter, but he is a great passer with court vision and a tremendous defender, which will help earn Martin’s trust compared to more experienced counterparts.

Missouri will be at its best if/when Robertson can move off the ball, and it will be the combination of Phillips/Geist/Harris that would run the show at the point. The trio combined for 41 minutes, 10 points on seven FG attempts, six assists, three turnovers, two steals. On Friday. Please do.

G CJ Roberts (6-0, 180): Roberts is a Kim Anderson recruit that Martin and company persuaded to stay (I doubt it was that hard), but the situation he committed to originally is far different than the current situation, and his playing time will certainly suffer as a result. He was No. 11 of 11 guys that played on Friday – and that rotation will certainly shrink as the season enters conference play. How quickly can he game ready? All freshman have a learning curve and the sooner he develops, the better. We know what we’re getting from CVL…certainly Harris and Roberts are better?

Tonight, Roberts is in street clothes.

C Reed Nikko (6-10, 250): Nikko is the third big on the roster, behind Tillmon and J. Porter. He does not offer much offensively, but he does offer size and rebounding/shot blocking. In five minutes on Friday, he offered one of each. He will be needed at times when Tilmon gets in foul trouble, which WILL happen (7 fouls in 13 minutes against Kansas).

PF Mitchell Smith (6-10, 215): The sophomore only played 11 games in 2016-2017 before suffering an ACL tear. With a makeover roster, Smith will not see much playing time, and could be a transfer risk. He will have to make the most of his opportunities that he SHOULD get against the Little Sisters of Poor in non-con. A work in progress, in the future, if he sticks around, he could carve out a decent role.

He did not appear in Friday’s win and will not dress out tonight.

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Missouri basketball is back on the map. It’s hard to fathom after three horrendous seasons, but expectations are high, and missing the NCAA Tournament would be a let down.

In other words:

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