With a seasoned squad lined with veterans for the 2020-21 season, Missouri men’s basketball’s first day of practice Wednesday was long awaited.
“Yes, sir: First day,” guard Mark Smith said while giving the camera a grin in a video posted by the team’s Twitter page.
“Let’s go,” coach Cuonzo Martin said in that same video, adding an approving nod.
It’s the excitement of a team that’s hoping for big things.
Martin and several players spoke with the media over Zoom for the first time this season following Wednesday’s practice, with Martin assuring that his team has undergone enormous development since the Southeastern Conference Tournament was cut short last season because of COVID-19.
“(Jeremiah Tilmon) has gotten better,” Martin said when asked who has improved since last season. “The conditioning piece and all that, his energy, his focus, and he looks like a guy that’s a senior in a college program ... because of how he looks, how he talks and how he moves. It says a lot about the wisdom that he’s gained over time.”
While Martin has liked what he’s seen in the offseason from his veterans, he listed sophomore forward Parker Braun as the player whose improvement he’s been most impressed with.
“He’s been good,” Martin said. “He’s always had good legs on him, but his body has filled out, so he’s been impressive knocking the 3-ball down. He’d probably be the one (player) that has stood out to me most in comparison to where he was.”
With talks of improvement, a common question was how Hawaii graduate transfer guard Drew Buggs has fit into the deep guard rotation that Missouri retained going into this season. It also features returners including Xavier Pinson, Dru Smith and Mark Smith.
Martin and teammates have rave reviews for Buggs and his ability to space the floor.
“He’s a physical body — stature like Dru Smith,” Martin said. “He’s strong, and knows how to pass the ball. He forces guys to run because he’s a very willing passer. Unlike (Pinson and Dru Smith), scoring is the second or third thing on his list.”
“Buggs really gets into the paint and looks for the open guy,” Mark Smith said. “I feel like he just has a different confidence to him. He’s fun to play with.”
While the team is excited for the new-look squad, it has acknowledged that this upcoming season isn’t normal.
The team is taking the necessary precautions to get out ahead of COVID-19 and hopes that its past encounters will be limited to just the past. Martin said that there are players on the team who have had COVID-19, but the team is currently healthy.
“The end of last season kind of prepared us for the unknown,” Dru Smith said. “We just know that we have to go in every day and prepare like things are going to be normal. After that, it’s kind of out of our hands.”
“I think if we could play the game where there’s no students on campus and our players can live in the arena, go right to the dorm and back to the arena, I think that’s the safest way,” Martin said when asked if he feels that it’s safe for his team to play this season.
Though the NBA managed to hold a successful bubble experience, playing three months at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, without a COVID-19 case, Martin doesn’t agree with the idea of a bubble for his group.
“I don’t think a bubble would be good for our guys because of the mental stress,” he said, “just hearing from the NBA teams, the stress of it. Now, they pulled it off, and it was great, but just the anxiety and stress of being in that environment can be tough for young men and women.”
The team is trying to “solidify a tournament in Orlando,” according to Martin, the name of which is currently unknown.
The Tigers currently have no schedule for the season, and while the NCAA has approved teams to begin their seasons Nov. 25, it remains unknown whether or not Missouri will play that day.