After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years, the Missouri men’s basketball team looks to make improvements and go deeper in the postseason.
One of the biggest hurdles is getting all of the new players on the same page. Known as a tough and outspoken coach, Cuonzo Martin has high expectations for his team.
“The most important thing for me is playing as a team,” Martin said at a media availability Wednesday at Mizzou Arena. “I’ve never been a guy that really gets consumed with who leads us in scoring or who’s the best player. I can’t control that. I think guys determine that on the floor. I expect them all to play hard and play defense and play together. I expect that all the time.”
The Tigers will need to make adjustments after Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson graduated, and Michael Porter Jr. left for the NBA Draft. The team has three players that are returning for the upcoming season who started or contributed significant minutes: Jontay Porter, Jeremiah Tilmon and Jordan Geist.
After declaring for the NBA Draft without an agent, Porter announced last week that he would return to the team for his sophomore season. He said he made his decision before the NBA Combine in May and that working with coaches and scouts while going through the pre-draft process helped him improve his skills. Puryear agreed, citing Porter’s new NBA-range 3-pointer.
“Shooting from NBA range every day has helped a lot,” Porter said. “Now a normal college 3 feels like a mid-range.”
Porter noted that he spoke with Martin throughout the process, learning from him and receiving advice. Martin has heard about coaches holding their players back from joining the NBA, but he said he wants the best for Porter.
“I think barring any injury, he’ll be a guy that plays 12-15 years at the next level,” Martin said as a credit to Porter’s versatility.
Missouri’s depth at the guard position suffered dramatically last season, ending with Cullen VanLeer’s injury. Prize recruit Blake Harris transferred to N.C. State midseason, C.J. Roberts left for Texas Tech and Terrence Phillips was removed from the team when MU launched a Title IX investigation against him after receiving abuse claims from at least four women.
VanLeer, a senior to-be, started 10 games for the Tigers last season before getting sidelined with an ACL tear in his right knee. He was averaging 2.4 points per game in 14 minutes per game during that time and injured his knee just weeks before the NCAA Tournament. Martin said VanLeer is still out and that the two have had discussions about scholarship situations and the role he can still have on the team.
Redshirt sophomore Mitchell Smith, a 6-foot-10 forward who redshirted in 2017-18, will play this season after tearing his ACL late in his freshman season. Martin expects him to play the forward and power forward positions and said that he is continuing to work on his 3-point shot.
Senior Jordan Geist will continue to be the starting point guard for the Tigers this upcoming season. Known to be a quiet presence for the team, he’s working to improve his communication skills.
“I always felt like I was good at coming into the gym and showing what needs to be done, but now I’m trying to be more vocal,” Geist said.
Geist has also taken on a leadership role outside of the court, engaging with the young players and transfers.
“We’ve got so many younger guys, we’ve been playing a lot of ‘Fortnite’ together,” Geist said. “Just talking and building relationships there is a big thing.”
The 2018-19 roster will feature several young guards, including freshmen Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett. Another newcomer, Illinois-Chicago transfer K.J. Santos, is expected to contribute to the team immediately as a sophomore after sitting out last season. Guards Dru Smith and Mark Smith transferred from Evansville and Illinois, respectively, but both guards will sit out the upcoming season because of NCAA transfer rules.
Despite not working with a full roster this season because of the transfers, Martin is not worried about the team’s depth at point guard.
“Right now, you’ve got Geist and Xavier. I feel fine with that,” Martin said. “The guys (last season) did a tremendous job really growing as basketball players, and Xavier will be a talented basketball player.”
He noted that Pinson has been in the gym outside of the mandatory practices working on personal improvement. Puryear added that Pickett and Mark Smith traveled to Columbia last week, before the team began formal practices.
“They were in the gym every single day and are always itching to get better and work on their crafts,” Puryear said. “Everybody that is new has a done a great job establishing themselves early on.”
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