With the madness of March underway, the Missouri Tigers are left out of the hysteria. Instead, coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff are already looking ahead to next season.
The 2019-20 campaign will be Martin’s third in Columbia, and after a 15-17 mark in 2018-19, the Tigers are undoubtedly hoping to improve.
So what will next season’s team look like? Here’s a way too early look at Missouri’s projected rotation:
G Xavier Pinson
After showing plenty of flashes off the bench in his freshman season, Xavier Pinson figures to have more opportunities in 2019-20. A true point guard, Pinson averaged 2.3 assists per game this season, but will need to cut down on his 2.3 turnovers per game.
Pinson will be the closest thing to a pure point guard on the 2019-20 team, as long as Martin does not add another player, so he looks like a strong candidate to start from the get-go.
G Mark Smith
After shooting 23.2 percent from 3-point range during his freshman season at Illinois in 2017-18, Mark Smith was granted immediate eligibility to play for Missouri this season. His stroke improved mightily, as Smith shot 45.5 percent from deep in 2018-19.
Though Smith missed 12 games down the stretch this season with a foot/ankle injury, there’s no reason to think that should affect his junior season. Smith was a bona fide starter from the start in Columbia, and that figures to continue next season.
G Dru Smith
Unlike his fellow Smith, Dru Smith did have to sit out this season after transferring from Evansville. Smith will be a junior with two years of eligibility left in 2019-20.
Dru Smith made the All-Missouri Valley Conference freshman team in 2016-17, then continued to be a reliable scorer in his sophomore season. Smith averaged 13.7 points per game in 2017-18 and led the MVC in 3-point shooting with a 48.2 percent clip.
Between Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Torrence Watson and Pinson, the Tigers could be a scary 3-point shooting team next season.
F Tray Jackson
Throughout this past season, Martin implored his power forwards, Kevin Puryear, Mitchell Smith and K.J. Santos, to step up and contribute more.
With Puryear gone, three candidates remain to start at the four position. Tray Jackson, a 6-foot-8 forward rated four stars, according to 247 Sports’ Composite rankings, enters the mix. It’s always hard to project how high school players will make the transition to the college game, but if there’s anything we do know about Jackson, it’s that he’s an athletic freak. This dunk certainly proves that.
Don’t be surprised if Mitchell Smith starts Missouri’s opener next season as Jackson adjusts to high-major college basketball. But once Jackson figures things out, he should start.
F Jeremiah Tilmon
Jeremiah Tilmon has donned the black and gold for two seasons, and the same storyline will remain going into his third: can the big man stay on the floor?
Per 40 minutes, Tilmon averaged a stellar 16.8 points and 9.8 rebounds. The issue is Tilmon also averaged 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes, fouling out of 10 games.
There just isn’t much to unpack with Tilmon. If he manages to play 30-33 minutes a game like players of Tilmon’s caliber tend to, he should be one of the best big men the SEC has to offer.
Whether they crack Martin’s starting lineup or come off the bench, Watson and Javon Pickett will surely play key roles for Missouri in 2019-20. Both showed plenty of promise in their freshman seasons.
Watson showed some of the scoring prowess that made him St. Louis’ Whitfield School’s all time leading scorer (2,755 points). Meanwhile, Pickett became a starter from Day 1, buoyed by strong defense and a surprisingly developed offensive game.
Both Pickett and Watson figure to be cornerstones of the program for the next three seasons, but with the Smiths it’s a crowded backcourt. Unless Martin trusts Dru Smith to play point guard, Pinson is the only true facilitator of Missouri’s guards. That leaves Mark Smith, Dru Smith, Pickett and Watson vying for two starting spots.
It’s a good problem for Missouri to have, as two guards coming off Martin’s bench figure to be capable of starting in the SEC.
Meanwhile, Mario McKinney, a three-star guard according to 247 Sports’ Composite rankings, enters the mix. In this crowded backcourt, he’ll have to earn each of his minutes.
Depth was an issue for the Tigers in 2018-19, especially when Mark Smith and Pickett endured injury troubles. The 2019-20 Tigers should have far fewer problems in that regard.
While Missouri’s cache of forwards isn’t as deep as its backcourt, it will be no less important for the Tigers’ reserves in the frontcourt to step up. Tilmon’s foul tendencies matched with uncertainty at the four position will put this group into action.
Reed Nikko and Mitchell Smith figure to see the most playing time of any of the reserve forwards. While Nikko may not drop many jaws with his athleticism, the 6-10 forward knew his role as Tilmon’s backup this season. Nikko is a reliable rebounder, and his 60.6 field goal percentage even led the team in 2018-19.
Mitchell Smith’s athletic 6-10, 215-pound frame has always been promising, but he needs to become a more reliable scorer. Smith averaged 2.5 points per game in 2018-19.
The rest of the roster
Ronnie Suggs did an admirable job this season, establishing a role in Martin’s rotation as a walk-on. Suggs even earned a scholarship for the rest of 2018-19 at least. But with such a crowded backcourt, he may struggle to see the floor next season.
Santos, on the other hand, has the luxury of looking for playing time in Missouri’s less heralded frontcourt. But Santos fell out of Martin’s rotation down the stretch of this season, appearing just once in the last four games. Walk-on forward Parker Braun, who turned down scholarship offers from LSU and Illinois, among others, could also see playing time in 2019-20.
Supervising editor is Theo DeRosa.