University of Missouri

Mizzou basketball’s returning players feel ‘relief’ amid offseason transformation

Fans aren’t the only ones excited about Missouri men’s basketball’s offseason about-face.

The Tigers’ faithful is understandably excited about former California coach Cuonzo Martin’s hiring and the recruits he’s brought in, starting with the consensus top 2017 prospect Michael Porter Jr.

But Mizzou’s returning players, who welcomed the newcomers this week for the start of summer workouts, are equally pumped about the program’s transformation.

“It’s been a fun ride so far,” junior forward Kevin Puryear, a Blue Springs South graduate, said.

No players remain from Kim Anderson’s debut 9-23 season in 2014-15, but Puryear is one of five holdovers from squads that went 18-45 during the last two seasons before Martin’s arrival.

With still more than 150 days before the opening of the 2017-18 season Nov. 10 against Iowa State at Mizzou Arena, there’s a palpable sense that the dark cloud of losing that’s hung over the program has lifted.

“It’s definitely a relief,” said senior wing Jordan Barnett — a St. Louis native and last season’s leading scorer, who transferred from Texas midway through the 2014-15 season. “We know we’re going to be good. Our biggest challenge is just getting better and doing better than what’s expected. I just can’t wait, man.”

With all the new arrivals — guards Blake Harris, C.J. Roberts and Canisius graduate transfer Kassius Robertson along with center Jeremiah Tilmon in addition to Porter — it’s easy to overlook the Tigers’ returning talent.

However, Martin believes there’s a solid foundation in place with Barnett, who averaged 12.2 points and 5.7 rebounds, Puryear, who averaged 11.8 points and a team-high 6.0 rebounds, and junior guard Terrence Phillips, who averaged 10.4 points with team-highs in three-point percentage (35.6) and assists per game (4.4).

“I like them, because they work hard and compete,” Martin said.

It’s also a group hungry for success after getting kicked around in the SEC for the last few seasons, so any help is welcome.

“There is no ego and there is no beef,” Phillips said. “It’s all about competing. That’s what we’re here to do. At the end of the day, I’ve said it since I was a freshman and I’m going to say it now, I don’t care if I start and I don’t care if I come off the bench. I just want to win. … That’s all that matters.”

The competition for minutes will be much tougher, but none of the returning players seem to feel entitled and instead are eager to help the new teammates adjust to the college game as quickly as possible.

“It isn’t fun unless you’ve really got to compete for your time,” Barnett said. “We’re all battling and we’ll see who’s all going to be on the court. It will be fine, regardless of who’s there. There's going to be a lot of excitement. … We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, and everybody’s showing it early.”

Barnett, who reached the NCAA Tournament as a freshman with the Longhorns in 2014-15, wouldn’t have predicted such a rapid turnaround in February, but he’s not complaining.

“The best-case scenario was I really wanted to get to the tournament with these guys,” he said. “Honestly, that’s what I really wanted (when I transferred to Missouri), and I feel like this is the year we could really do that.”

Martin, who said sophomore forward Mitchell Smith continues to rehab from a torn ACL suffered in January, allayed any concerns about eligibility among the heralded crop of incoming players.

“Everybody’s in class and we’re rolling unless you know something I don’t,” Martin said. “… All these guys are in the fold, yes.”