Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin is still tweaking his guard rotation.
On Monday, in Missouri’s narrow win over Division II Emporia State, Jordan Geist made his first start of the season. He started alongside Kassius Robertson, the graduate transfer who Martin had tabbed during the preseason to start at point guard, a position he had never played before.
Martin seems to be backing off the idea of having Robertson pilot the offense. Geist took Cullen VanLeer’s spot in the starting lineup against Emporia State and played point guard while Robertson played off the ball.
Starting Geist gave the Tigers a better defender at point guard. Martin likes for his team to guard the opposing point guard the length of the floor and he also thought playing Robertson off the ball would help open up more shots for him.
Robertson is supposed to be Missouri’s best three-point shooter, but he was 0 for 9 and 0 for 6 from three on Monday. As a team, the Tigers shot just 39.7 percent from the field and made 2 of 20 three-point attempts, so more adjustments could be ahead.
Although he started, Geist, who missed both of his field-goal attempts and was scoreless, played just 10 minutes despite not committing a foul. Here are how many minutes Missouri’s other guards played:
▪ Robertson — 34
▪ VanLeer — 22
▪ Blake Harris — 22
▪ Terrence Phillips — 5
What should you take away from this?
▪ Robertson is averaging 32.8 minutes per game, and he seems primed to lead the team in minutes this season — at least until Michael Porter Jr. comes back. And even then Robertson might do so. Martin likes to lean on veterans.
▪ Even if VanLeer doesn’t start, he’s going to get an opportunity to play this season. A low-regarded recruit out of Pacific, Mo., who former coach Kim Anderson signed, VanLeer is averaging 18.5 minutes per game despite seeming during the preseason like a player who could have gotten phased out of the Tigers’ rotation because of an influx of new talent at MU.
▪ Harris’ 22 minutes were a season high. He is Missouri’s fastest guard, and Martin said after the win over Emporia State that he likes the way the freshman pushes the ball upcourt and defends. He seems to play a bit out of control, though, which Martin acknowledged. Harris forced up a bad layup on a fast break, and he turned the ball over once, when he threw an errant pass intended for Kevin Puryear that ended up nowhere close.
▪ Phillips, a junior who started almost the entirety of his first two seasons under Anderson, is going to have a far different role this year. He played 26 minutes against Wagner and 17 minutes against Utah, but those were both blowouts. He played 5 minutes on Monday and 9 minutes in Missouri’s season opener against Iowa State. Those two games are the only two times that he has played less than 10 minutes as a Tiger.
Without Porter, Missouri’s offense runs through …
The Tigers still need to figure out who their go-to scorer will be while Porter is out. Martin said after his team lost at Utah that MU had “several of them,” but none of have shown in Missouri’s past two games. In the first half, Missouri shot 11 of 30 from the field, including just 1 of 13 from three.
Of Missouri’s three leading scorers — Robertson, Puryear and Jordan Barnett — only Puryear, who tied for a team-high 13 points, was effective on offense. Freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon also scored 13 points, but his offensive game still seems too limited to run an offense through, and he’s consistently in foul trouble.
Martin was mostly happy with his players’ shot selection. His main gripe, despite his team’s poor outside shooting, was that the Tigers were too passive at the three-point line. He thought that might have been because his coaching staff had overemphasized getting the ball inside.
“When the shot is open, you’ve got to let it fly,” Martin said.
Considering what Martin has said in the past about getting Robertson open looks and the fact he started him at his normal shooting guard position, finding a way to get the graduate transfer into an offensive rhythm seems to be a priority for Mizzou.
Robertson had a big game against Wagner but has struggled in Missouri’s other three contests. On Monday, Martin said he thought Robertson should have driven to the basket more when teams closed out on him.
Nikko is here to stay
Tilmon is going to be at risk of fouling out of many games for Missouri this season, and that means Reed Nikko is going to have a consistent role for the Tigers. So far, he’s excelled.
A season ago, as a freshman, he averaged 10.5 points, shot 59.9 percent from the field and grabbed 2.3 rebounds per game. In each of Missouri’s past three games, he has scored 8 points, and he has made 7 of his past 9 field goal attempts. He has also been an effective rebounder.
“He’s one of those guys that carries out his assignment to a tee,” Martin said of Nikko. “He’s big. He’s physical. I think the biggest key with Reed is just understanding how talented he is and really believing in himself. I think he’s better than what he gives himself credit for.”
Nikko underwent surgery on both hips during his final year of high school, and he said Monday that he’s feeling the best he has since he was a junior in high school.