Missouri forward Tray Jackson collides with Central Missouri guard Joshua Greer under the basket at the MU basketball exhibition game against CMU

Missouri forward Tray Jackson collides with Central Missouri guard Joshua Greer during the exhibition game Friday at Mizzou Arena. Missouri’s first regular season home game is Wednesday against Incarnate Word.

Cuonzo Martin heads into a pivotal third season in charge of Missouri basketball with a team that has everyone confused.

Much has been made about the 13th place Southeastern Conference finish predicted by the SEC media last month. And while other outlets such as ESPN have joined in on predicting the Tigers to finish in the bottom three of the SEC, expectations fluctuate depending on where you look — KenPom has the Tigers as the sixth-best team in the SEC.

What accounts for this expectations gap?

It starts with how enigmatic Missouri has been over Martin’s first two seasons at the helm.

The first year catapulted Missouri back onto the national radar with the arrival of a top 10 recruiting class and all the hoopla surrounding Michael Porter Jr. An injury to Porter dimmed the hopes for the season but behind the smooth shooting of Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett, the team played well enough to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

In Martin’s second season, Jontay Porter was set to feature as the team’s biggest star and point man of its offense before tearing his ACL right before the season began. After junior Mark Smith’s foot injury sidelined him for the second half of the season, depth became a bigger issue and Tigers missed the tourney, finishing with a 15-17 record they hope is a low point for the Cuonzo Martin era.

How do the Tigers make that jump back to the NCAA Tournament after last year’s down season? Well to start, the players are different.

The Tigers lost seniors Jordan Geist and Kevin Puryear to graduation. The two combined for 32% of the Tigers’ scoring last season. Geist’s role grew every year until he blossomed into the team’s primary creator last season, while Puryear’s best season arguably came in his breakout freshman campaign.

To replace Geist, the Tigers return sophomore point guard Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith, the junior Evansville transfer who sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Pinson, a flashy passer who struggles with turnovers, turned the ball over at a 30.6% rate during his up-and-down freshman season. Turnovers were a team-wide problem last season — Missouri averaged 14 turnovers per game, good for 269th in Division I.

Enter Dru Smith. Smith doesn’t blow you away with athleticism on tape, but he projects as an effective quarterback for the offense, something Martin emphasized the importance of after Friday’s exhibition.

“Don’t try to be a playmaker, make the right play,” Martin said.

Smith has become a beacon of hope for many Tiger fans over the offseason, and flashed in the exhibition against Central Missouri, scoring eight points and adding seven assists and six steals.

If he and Pinson can help limit the Tigers’ turnovers while running the point, the team is primed for a step forward in 2019.

Missouri also added another guard, explosive athlete Mario McKinney Jr., who played high school ball at Vashon. McKinney, though a walking hoop mixtape, doesn’t appear to be as college-ready as his freshman peers. Expectations for McKinney in his first season are that he will provide energy off the bench in limited minutes, with a bigger role in his future.

The power forward position is an important part of Martin’s offense and the combination of Kevin Puryear, KJ Santos and Mitchell Smith didn’t cut it last season.

Martin recruited two freshmen, Kobe Brown and Tray Jackson, to help remedy the problem. While Jackson was the higher-ranked recruit and a more explosive athlete, it was Brown who started at the four during Friday’s exhibition. Brown’s defensive versatility, combined with his ability to handle the ball and shoot 3s, is likely why he seems to have Martin’s confidence early on in the season.

“When you watch how we play… a lot of things go through (the power forward) position,” Martin said. “The ball movement, that guy can create an advantage for you with his size and skill … It’s a great position, it’s a position that we demand a lot out of and you have two young talented guys at that position right now.”

Besides those bigger names, Missouri lost Santos and Ronnie Suggs, who both transferred after last season. The final addition is 7-foot junior center Axel Okongo. Okongo, a transfer from Northwest College, is more of a developmental big who likely won’t see major minutes this year.Taking most of the minutes at center will be junior Jeremiah Tilmon, who was named preseason second-team All-SEC early this week. Tiger fans know the story on Tilmon by now: He’s a dominant post presence who can’t seem to get foul trouble under control.

The Tigers were 10-5 last season in games where Tilmon reached double figures. The team’s offense is at its best when Tilmon is drawing double teams in the post surrounded by four shooters. With strong wing depth and five players who shot above 35% from behind the arc in their last collegiate season (Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Mitchell Smith, Xavier Pinson, and Torrence Watson), the Tigers are equipped to play this style. The key will be keeping Tilmon out of foul trouble to keep him on the floor as long as possible.

Missouri’s depth at the wing position figures to be its biggest strength. Watson and Mark Smith can fill it up from beyond the arc, and while Pickett is a weaker shooter, his work ethic on the defensive end made him an early favorite for Martin. Expect Watson and Pickett to battle for starting minutes at the three. To begin the season, Pickett appears to have the edge, but Watson has a higher upside as a scorer and could emerge as the season progresses in much the same way he did last year.

While 3-point shooting projects to be a strength of this team, the Tigers shot 36.3% from deep last season, Martin has been constantly emphasizing putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket more often this season. In the first half against Central Missouri, the Tigers did not attempt a single free throw before they adjusted at halftime to get to the line for 19 in the second half.

“I think because those 3-pointers looked easy and they were open, we settled instead of being aggressive,” Martin said. “And there are certain guys, a few guys on the team, any time that 3-point shot is open, have to be ready to shoot the ball, but some other guys you have to take advantage of your ability to drive the basketball.”

Stylistically, Missouri has to focus on spreading out its scoring across the two most efficient areas on the court — around the rim and behind the arc — while making sure they don’t become too one dimensional.Martin would not reveal his planned rotations and starters ahead of the opener, but here is a likely depth chart to start the season:

PG: Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson

SG: Mark Smith, Mario McKinney, Jr.

Wing: Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson

PF: Kobe Brown, Tray Jackson

C: Jeremiah Tilmon, Reed Nikko/Mitchell Smith

We know Martin’s teams play good defense, and this Tigers team has the players to continue that trend. Combine that with above average 3-point shooting, an infusion of new talent and returning 64% of the Tigers’ scoring from last season, it’s not hard to project a win increase for the squad this year.

The most likely scenario? The Tigers finish as a bubble team with a record around 18-12 and have to rely on picking up a win or two in the SEC Tournament to punch their ticket to the NCAA tourney.

  • Spring 2018 sports reporter. I am a sophomore studying business and sports journalism

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