If there’s one silver lining to the strange, bizarre way the 2019-20 men’s college basketball season ended for Missouri, it’s that for many players this won’t be their last hurrah.
The Southeastern Conference announced Thursday morning — just a few hours before the Tigers were scheduled to play Texas A&M in the second round — that its annual postseason tournament was canceled due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Later that day, the NCAA did the same by canceling all winter and spring sports championships, including the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. This is the first time since 1938 that the event known as March Madness will not be held. It marked an unceremonious end to thousands of collegiate careers across the United States but only one for Missouri men’s basketball: Reed Nikko.
The 6-foot-10 senior was having a career year at center, filling in for most of the SEC slate for the injured Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. Nikko finished with averages of 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game with a 63.9% rate from the field in league play — all career-highs — but ultimately never got to play a postseason game in his final year.
Fortunately for Missouri, everyone else on the roster as of Sunday will return for the 2020-21 season. The Tigers will return a talented, experienced core that’ll look to be gunning for a finish in the top half of the SEC.
Player by player, the Missourian breaks down what scholarship players return, how their seasons went and what to expect for next year, with an additional look at Missouri’s recruiting board for the Class of 2020.
Returners (Name, Position, Class Level in 2020-21) Xavier Pinson, guard, Jr. (11.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists per game) No Missouri player, especially late in its season, was able to consistently electrify like Pinson. Full of athleticism and with a fearless mentality, his stretch of six straight games — from Feb. 15 against Auburn to March 4 against Ole Miss — with at least 15 points was some of the best and most exciting basketball the Tigers played all year. His shooting (27.9% from 3) and decision-making (79 turnovers) can improve, but his skillset got people’s attention. Just ask 6-foot-10 Florida forward Omar Payne, who Pinson (6-foot-2) ferociously dunked over on Jan. 11 to make ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. Dru Smith, guard, R-Sr. (12.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.1 steals per game)
Within a Missouri roster that had injuries, transfers and a lot of turnover(s), Smith was the Tigers’ ironman. The only player to start all 31 games in coach Cuonzo Martin’s lineup, Smith thrived in his first season of eligibility after transferring from Evansville, finishing as the league leader in steals and perhaps surprisingly not being named to any All-SEC team. He was a focal point of Missouri’s offense despite a substantial drop (48.2% to 29.4%) in 3-point percentage from 2017-18 to 2019-20. If Smith can recuperate some of the form he lost from beyond the arc , watch out.
Mark Smith, guard, Sr. (10.0 points, 3.9 rebounds per game, 37.1% 3-point percentage)
Missouri’s best 3-point shooter was just starting to come around from a mid-season back injury before the college basketball world abruptly stopped, scoring 13 points on 3-for-7 shooting beyond the arc in the Tigers’ final game against Alabama on March 7. Smith had a tendency to shoot really hot (over 15 points in seven games) or really not (0 points in four games), and his passing skills (0.8 assists per game) weren’t spectacular. But if he catches fire, like Smith did shooting 7-for-9 from deep against Southern Illinois, he can carry Missouri to victory by himself.
Jeremiah Tilmon, forward, Sr. (8.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks per game)
Like Mark Smith, Tilmon’s 2019-20 season was shortened due to injury (stress fracture in foot), leaving Missouri for most of the year without an experienced starting presence in the middle. One of the SEC’s premier big men when healthy, Tilmon regressed somewhat from 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in 2018-19. Without Nikko to back him up, an injury-free and productive season out of Tilmon is critical to the Tigers’ success.
Javon Pickett, guard, Jr. (6.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists per game)
Pickett’s play per game was usually a pretty good barometer for how Missouri would do in a matchup. The Tigers were 7-1 when Pickett reached double figures in scoring ... while being 0-5 when he was held scoreless. Arguably Missouri’s best off-ball cutter, if teams gave him space Pickett could be productive. But his usage in the Tigers’ offense went down from his first to second season: Pickett shot 18.2% of Missouri’s shots when he was on the floor this year, compared to 23.3% of its shots in 2018-19.
Kobe Brown, guard/forward, So. (5.8 points, 3.7 rebounds per game)
Out of the four freshmen who suited up for the Tigers this winter, Brown had by far the most consistent presence in Missouri’s game plan, starting 26 of the 30 games he played. His stats don’t jump off the page, but his versatility on the floor — playing on the wing, leading a fast break or guarding an opposing center — made it easy for him to gain Martin’s trust. In fact, Martin has said on multiple occasions that he wants to mold Brown into a capable ballhandler, which if successful would make Brown a force at 6-foot-7.
Mitchell Smith, forward, R-Sr. (5.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 85.4% free throw percentage)
Mitchell Smith joined Nikko in being the second backup Missouri big man to have himself a career year. His per-game averages in points and rebounds this season both were close to doubling his previous career-best totals, but it was Smith’s increase from a 66.7% to 85.4% free throw percentage that was his most pleasant surprise, helping spur the Tigers to one of the country’s best team marks from the foul line (78%).
Torrence Watson, guard, Jr. (4.6 points, 1.3 rebounds per game)
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Watson regressed hard in his second year. The St. Louis native played in every game and had moments of brilliance — his Mizzou Arena-record eight 3s against Chicago State come to mind — but his confidence looked shot as he struggled to maintain consistency beyond the arc throughout the year. Watson hit just six treys in his final 12 games, seemingly not the same sharpshooter responsible for being second on the team in 3-point makes his freshman year.
Tray Jackson, forward, So. (2.9 points, 1.8 rebounds per game, 58.8% field goal percentage)
Jackson was an interesting case. Full of ridiculous athleticism and obvious raw talent, he still only played just over eight minutes per game as he was often saddled with what Martin said were conditioning issues. But like his 11 points in nine minutes against Tennessee on Jan. 7 showed, Jackson could provide short bursts of scoring when Missouri needed it. The trick for Jackson now is to prove to Martin that he should be a consistent member of the rotation: Jackson didn’t play more than 19 minutes in any game and didn’t see playing time at all in five games.
Parker Braun, forward, R-So. (1.4 points, 1.0 rebounds, 0.5 blocks per game)
Given a scholarship in the offseason by Martin, Braun repaid the favor with spurts of quality play. Braun’s 24 minutes against Ole Miss, where he had four blocks and a putback dunk over a defender that was called an over-the-back foul, showed that his athleticism was clearly at a Division I level. However, at 6-foot-8 and 217 pounds, Braun often looked overwhelmed against the towering big men of the SEC. An offseason of bulking up and practicing with his brother, Kansas guard Christian Braun, may pay dividends for him.
Axel Okongo, forward, Sr. (0.6 points, 0.3 rebounds per game)
Okongo’s first appearance in a Missouri uniform, on Jan. 4 at Kentucky, was met more with surprise and curiosity than eagerness and hype. That’s how little anyone really knew about the 7-foot junior college transfer from France, and after eight appearances and just 32 minutes played, we still don’t know much about him. His defensive prowess touted on the Missouri athletics website resulted in a total of just two rebounds and one block in his first season in Columbia. The size is there as Missouri’s tallest player, but if the skill isn’t, it’ll be hard to see Okongo’s minutes increase in 2020-21.
Class of 2020 Recruits (Name, Height, Position, Hometown, High School) Jordan Wilmore, 7-3, forward, Baltimore, The Skills Factory (Atlanta)
One way for Missouri to replace Nikko is by signing what would be the tallest player to ever play for Missouri (if Wilmore’s listed height is accurate). Wilmore signed his national letter of intent in November while sharpening his skills in prep school, having already played high school ball at Whitehaven High School in Memphis. “Jordan has great length and a good feel for the game,” Martin said in a news release when Wilmore signed with Missouri. “He is disruptive defensively protecting the rim and excellent on the glass, and will be a solid back-to-the-basket big for us.”