On Mondays, Aaron Reiss, one of The Star’s Mizzou beat writers, will offer a digest of thoughts on the Tigers and MU story lines to follow.
Win a NCAA Tournament and basketball coaches all over the country will say they want to play like you. A football coach will, too.
Seriously, Rutgers football coach Chris Ash said he wanted his team to play with the same offensive explosiveness that the Villanova basketball team possesses. No wonder the Scarlet Knights have posted three straight losing seasons.
So maybe Cuonzo Martin’s recent statements that he wants the Tigers to play more like the Wildcats are not worth looking too much into. But the school year is over, summer is here and there’s nothing to do but look too much into Martin’s words.
What would it mean to play more like Villanova? One buzzword comes to mind: positionless. On offense, positionless is code for every player on the court can make outside shots.
How realistic is it for Missouri to be positionless next season? Well, it’s May, so I don’t know why you’re asking me, but the answer is: hard to say. (Again, it’s May.) Mizzou’s offensive versatility will depend a lot on players who weren’t last year’s roster.
Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett are both gone. Assume Jontay Porter is, too. Those three combined for 227 of Mizzou’s 306 three-point makes last season. That’s more than 74 percent. The trio was responsible for 69 percent of MU’s three-point attempts.
Missouri will rely on newcomers K.J. Santos and Torrence Watson to contribute on the perimeter, and point guard Xavier Pinson will play, too, but it’s unclear how efficient or prolific any of them will be from three.
Pinson profiles more as a pass-first point guard. Santos shot 36.6 percent on three-pointers during his freshman season at Illinois-Chicago, but he only averaged 2.9 three-point attempts. Watson said recently that he knows he must improve his offensive game away from the basket because he won’t be able to get to the rim as easily as he did in high school. That transition could be easy for Watson. It could also be hard.
Of the returning Missouri players, only Jordan Geist shot a decent percentage from three last season (36.7) and that was on 90 attempts, fourth-most on the team. If he shot more threes under the guidance of his head coach, would his three-point shooting percentage drop?
Kevin Puryear shot a career-low 25.5 percent from three, and his power forward spot might be most key in determining whether MU’s offense looks positionless. Players at that spot need to hit three-pointers. At 6-foot-8, Santos could play some power forward, and 6-foot-10 Mitchell Smith is another big body who has some outside shooting ability.
“Obviously, for those two guys, Mitch and K.J., you have to get a minute and go through it,” Martin said of Smith and Santos. “But I think they have the potential to do different things with their size, their length and their athleticism.”
Here’s one player I wouldn’t count on contributing to a positionless offense: Jeremiah Tilmon. Martin said the center is practicing a thousand threes per day, but Tilmon didn’t attempt a single shot from beyond the arc as a freshman. Even Martin said he doesn’t think “that will become who he is as a basketball player. He plays around the rim, runs the floor, is a physical presence.”
This shot chart from The Stepien is missing four games — at Mississippi, vs. Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt and the NCAA Tournament contest against Florida State — and records a player holding the ball when the shot clock expires, or a foul occurs, as an attempt (see the Tilmon three-pointer). But it still is useful for showing that Tilmon rarely was comfortable leaving the paint, and when he did, he did not shoot well.
So let’s set the over/under on Tilmon’s made threes next season at 2.5. The tougher bet: Will next season’s Missouri team make more threes than last season’s squad? That was Martin’s best, most-prolific three-point shooting group ever — and the coach had not yet even become so inspired by Villanova.
Sophie at center?
The Missouri women’s basketball team might benefit even more than the men’s squad by going positionless.
I’ve thought about this since coach Robin Pingeton said that 6-foot-4 forward Cierra Porter might forgo her senior year and medically retire. If Porter does not return, Missouri would have just one player near Porter’s size: incoming freshman Brittany Garner. So Mizzou’s personnel could be better suited to spread the floor out with five players on the perimeter, or four on the perimeter and one in the post.
After Florida Gulf Coast upset Missouri in the NCAA Tournament this past season, Porter said the Tigers had not faced a team like the Eagles during the regular season. Florida Gulf Coast did not have a single player standing 6 feet tall, and the Eagles attempted the most three-pointers in the country.
Unlike the rest of the SEC, Porter said, the Eagles weren’t “an inside, post-up kind of team.” Missouri looked flat footed trying to aggressively close out on three-point looks, and the Eagles blew by them for easy shots at the rim.
The Tigers could have the perfect undersized center in star Sophie Cunningham, who is 6-1 — the same size as former All-SEC MU forward Jordan Frericks — and loves to post up. If Cunningham is matched up on a typical post player, she’d almost always be able to scorch them on the perimeter. And she’s an adept passer, so she’d thrive when defenses closed in on her in the paint.
Missouri connections in NBA playoffs
The NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals began Sunday, and there’s a former Mizzou player in them: guard Jordan Clarkson.
Clarkson arrived to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of Cleveland’s trade deadline overhaul of its roster. He’s been a bench player for the Cavs, and he has struggled during these playoffs, the first in his four NBA seasons.
I wrote about him back in January, when there were rumors that the Los Angeles Lakers, a rebuilding franchise, would unload Clarkson’s contract on another team. When I asked him about that, he gave one of the best quotes I have ever had the privilege of transcribing: “There’s a bank in every city.”
There are some other Missouri connections in this conference finals matchup. The Cavs coach, Tyronn Lue, was born in Mexico, Mo., and grew up in Kansas City. Jayson Tatum, the Boston Celtics’ rookie star, is from St. Louis and considered playing for Mizzou before picking Duke.
Also, Tatum’s running mate, second-year forward Jaylen Brown, played for now-Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin when Martin was at California.
Baseball drops another conference series
Missouri baseball lost its third consecutive conference series this past weekend. After securing a series-opening victory at South Carolina — the program’s first ever win there — the Tigers lost 6-3 on Saturday and 1-0 on Sunday.
The final defeat happened in walk-off fashion. Mizzou junior lefty Tyler LaPlante, a Pembroke Hill grad, had struck out eight batters, walked just one and surrendered scattered four hits before giving up a home run on the first pitch of the ninth inning.
Mizzou is now 31-20 overall, 10-17 in conference play. The Tigers are last in the SEC East, 1 1/2 games back of Tennessee (11-15), which comes to Columbia for both teams’ final regular-season series. If Mizzou can win the series, it can move out of last place and make the 12-team conference tournament.
Softball's season lives
MU didn’t make the SEC softball tournament, and that didn’t matter to the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Missouri made its 12th straight NCAA regional and is headed to Norman, Okla., where it will face Tulsa on Friday and likely No. 4 overall seed Oklahoma after that if the Tigers win.
Despite finishing last in the SEC, Mizzou was rather comfortably in the field of 64. The Tigers played one of the country’s toughest schedules, owned a top 25 RPI and are a No. 2 seed in the Norman regional.
Schweizer wins again
Senior Karissa Schweizer won her second-straight 5,000 meters at the SEC Outdoor Track and Field championships on Sunday in Knoxville, Tenn.
That victory gave Missouri a sweep of SEC titles in the 5K and 10K in back-to-back seasons, as redshirt senior Megan Cunningham won the 10K this past weekend after Jamie Kempfer did so a year ago for MU.
The Tigers are the first team to sweep the women’s 5K and 10K in consecutive seasons since Arkansas did so in 2014 and 2015.
Schweizer also finished second in the 1,500. Gabi Jacobs won a SEC title in discus.
“The challenge of track and field is to be able to come in and deliver what you’re capable of delivering, and our athletes did that and more,” MU head coach Brett Halter said. “They really showed up. The effort and integrity of this group was remarkable. Our staff is really proud of everything our team accomplished. Points are extremely hard to come by at this meet, and we had a lot of athletes get on the board. Obviously, Karissa, Gabi and Megan showed up in a big way becoming SEC Champions.”