University of Missouri

Who will get minutes for Missouri basketball next season? A look at the Tigers’ options

Mizzou’s Cuonzo Martin on the upcoming season

Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin discusses the team’s upcoming schedule and some early thoughts from summer workouts.
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Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin discusses the team’s upcoming schedule and some early thoughts from summer workouts.

Cuonzo Martin will have his deepest team at Missouri this fall, as he enters his third season as the Tigers’ men’s basketball coach.

With Missouri having so much depth at each position, does he expect to extend the bench? The early indication is no.

“I’d like to hopefully get to nine guys next season,” Martin told reporters late last week. “Eight, nine, if you get to 10 or 11 it means something special is happening or something special is not happening.”

In short: Martin might start the year playing more than 10 men, but as the season continues, a cut will happen at some point. After Missouri landed junior college center Axel Okongo on Monday, the Tigers roster is full with 13 scholarship players.

Here’s an early look at who is in the mix at each position and who might have to fight for their minutes.

Point guard

Projected starter: Dru Smith

In the mix: Xavier Pinson

Other options: Mario McKinney

There’s talk that Pinson and Smith can start alongside each other, but for now, the safe bet is the junior transfer from Evansville. Martin and his players have raved about Smith, with center Jeremiah Tilmon calling him “the best facilitator I’ve ever played with.” Smith is a great defender and can take care of the ball, two things Pinson struggled with but improved on during his freshman season. McKinney might be the most athletic player in Missouri’s backcourt and would give Martin a different look, especially with his ability to play above the rim. Martin said McKinney has one of the quickest first steps of any player he’s ever seen. Smith and Pinson are locks to play. It will be interesting to see how Martin uses McKinney.

Shooting guard

Projected starter: Mark Smith

In the mix: Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett

Other options: Kobe Brown, Mario McKinney, Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson

This is where it gets interesting, especially if Martin elects to start Dru Smith and Pinson alongside each other. If Martin wants to have two ball-handlers on the court together, he could have Mark Smith or Torrence Watson at wing. Or, he could have Dru Smith play as his primary point guard and use Pinson off the ball more. Mark Smith was one of the country’s best three-point shooters before injuring his ankle at Arkansas in January. It’s tough to see a world in which he doesn’t start. But given MU’s backcourt depth, Martin is able to get creative at both guard spots and on the wing. Mark Smith has the edge, but there will be plenty of lineups that use Brown, McKinney and Dru Smith, who shot 50% from three as a sophomore at Evansville, off the ball.

Small forward/wing

Projected starter: Torrence Watson

In the mix: Javon Pickett

Other options: Kobe Brown, Mitchell Smith, Tray Jackson

There’s plenty of debate between starting Watson over Pickett, who started before a late-season back injury. Pickett exemplifies everything Martin likes in a player, from his work ethic to his defense, and surprised many when he started as a freshman. But Watson ended the season as one of Missouri’s top scorers, and showed flashes of the top-60 recruit who scored more than 2,700 points in high school. Depending upon the direction Martin takes the lineup, MU would have more scoring if he started Watson alongside Dru Smith and Mark Smith in the backcourt. All three are tremendous three-point shooters, too, which is an approach that helped lead MU to the NCAA Tournament in 2018. For now, we’ll project Watson as the starter, but it would come as no surprise if Pickett keeps his starting spot.

Power forward

Projected starter: Tray Jackson

In the mix: Kobe Brown, Parker Braun, Mitchell Smith

This is the position that has the chance to see the most players rotated, and is most likely to change between the summer and November. Jackson is a top-60 recruit who can play and guard all five positions. Missouri’s staff is extremely high on him. But the power forward position is the X-factor in Martin’s offense because the Tigers run so much through it. It’s a position Martin has to get right. Braun redshirted the past season and is now on scholarship after passing up offers from Arizona and Ole Miss to walk-on at MU. A lot of MU’s players have said he’s sneaky athletic. Like Jackson, Brown can also play multiple positions and Martin recruited him to be a “combo-guard, combo-forward,” which means he’ll play all over the floor. Mitchell Smith had a strong finish to last season and Martin has praised him for his IQ and range on the court. He’ll be in the rotation in some capacity.

Center

Projected starter: Jeremiah Tilmon

In the mix: Reed Nikko

Other options: Axel Okongo

This is the position that has changed the most in the past 24 hours. Everyone knew Tilmon was starting, but the commitment of Okongo adds intrigue to what Martin will do if the 6-foot-10 junior gets in foul trouble, which frequently happens. Not much is known about Okongo, except that he played sparingly on a junior college team, is 7-foot and performed well at a national showcase. A native of France, Okongo has yet to sign and it’s unknown how quickly he will get on campus. With just two years of eligibility remaining, it’s hard to see him redshirting. Does Martin play one of his own recruits, Okongo, over Nikko? Or does he tip his hat to the senior? It’s too early to tell.

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.

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