Every player in Missouri Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin’s system knows their direct path to playing time:
Grit down and play defense.
It’s one of the foundations of Martin’s basketball program, and in year three, expect that to remain the same.
He sees defense translating to wins and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. After a trying season that saw the Tigers finish 15-17 and 5-13 in the SEC, they’re eyeing a comeback. That resurgence starts on the defensive side of the court, then follows through to offense, Martin contends.
“We try to get easy baskets, but when you get stops, you can get easy baskets,” Martin said. “When you’re playing on your heels defensively, it’s hard to really get into a flow.”
Look no further than last season where, despite the struggles, the Tigers still defended at a high level.
Mizzou posted an adjusted defensive efficiency of 97.2, 51st in the nation, according to KenPom.com. The stat estimates points allowed per 100 possessions against an average offense. When the Tigers were a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago, they posted a 97.0 mark in adjusted defensive efficiency, 43rd in the nation.
In Martin’s short history as MU’s coach, he’s established a culture that thrives on making the opponent uncomfortable. The Tigers know if they don’t play stout defense, they’ll be pulled until they do.
And if it leads to “ugly” practices, that’s what they’re hoping for.
“Everyone’s competing so hard, sometimes we’ll play for 10 minutes and the score will be 5-2,” guard Torrence Watson said. “Offense usually takes care of itself once we know the plays and everything like that, know the sets. Then you just play basketball. But defense is going to win us games, stopping the other team from scoring.”
Tilmon can star, but who else?
With no Porter brother on the roster, there’s no surefire NBA talent on the Tigers. In their place, however, leaves Martin with perhaps his deepest MU roster, one that features a flourishing star forward and plentiful options at guard.
While the rotation can include 10 or 11 players, how Martin utilizes strengths and weaknesses will be important. After Friday’s exhibition win against Central Missouri, Martin said there are still decisions to be made regarding the rotation.
Though it helps the roster is fully healthy. That hasn’t been a guarantee the past two seasons.
“When major guys go down, it just changes a lot of what you do,” Martin said of the injuries. “It’s not an easy thing to do when you lose key guys, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Doesn’t mean you don’t have to compete, but your margin for error is very slim.”
Jeremiah Tilmon is the obvious face of this team, the forward returning for his junior year after testing the NBA Draft waters. He averaged 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore, oftentimes looking like the Tigers’ best weapon. Martin said the offense and team will revolve around Tilmon.
While he strives to improve his game, the 6-foot-10 forward will also work continuously at his nagging nemesis: foul trouble. He had four fouls against Central Missouri, his third foul benching him not even a minute into the second half. It was a troubling sign of the past, but Tilmon said he works with the refs and coaches to continue to smooth out that part of his game.
“Sometimes I go back to my old ways,” Tilmon said. “There’s times I end up (fouling) and not even knowing it (because of positioning). It happens.”
As for who’s responsible for initiating the offense and feeding Tilmon, look no further than Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson. Both bring different skills, but perhaps most importantly, are also equipped with experience.
Pinson played minutes last season because of injuries elsewhere, showcasing the good and bad of relying on a then-freshman guard. Dru Smith had to sit out a year because of NCAA transfer rules, so he took a long season off refining every aspect of his game, he said. Martin compared Dru Smith to Jontay Porter, especially with the way he can impact the game without necessarily scoring.
Elsewhere, the team is overflowing at guard with Mark Smith, Javon Pickett and Watson. All three are returning players and give Martin the luxury of playing matchups. Mark Smith’s three-point shooting prowess is noteworthy, while Pickett and Watson are wings who can guard multiple positions. Freshman Mario McKinney Jr. also has the chance to break into the rotation, though he’s a talented-but-raw product, Martin said.
“As a team goal we want to be one of the best assists teams in the country,” Dru Smith said. “We want to go out, share the ball, move the ball. Just all around, we’re going to go out and try to make the right decisions and right plays and hit people when they’re open.”
The forward position is still up in the air behind Tilmon, but Kobe Brown, Tray Jackson, Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko will contend for playing time. Brown, a freshman, is seemingly the early favorite at power forward, starting against Central Missouri. Martin said Brown impressed the most in practice, displaying toughness on both ends of the court.
Jackson is still learning his way as a rookie, but he was a top-100 recruit and the highest rated of the incoming class. Nikko and Mitchell Smith are both upperclassmen who can spell Tilmon.
Martin’s starting five against Central Missouri consisted of Pinson, Dru Smith, Tilmon, Brown and Pickett. But Martin said there’s no guarantee he rolls out the same group against Incarnate Word to begin the regular season Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.
“Everybody can’t play, but when you come in, you gotta come in and help us,” Pickett said. “Even if we’re on the sideline, we gotta have energy from our bench. Whoever it is, I know people are going to be excited for everybody. Even when we get to hard times, I know in our circle, we’re going to have the best type of energy to uplift us.”
Outside perceptions, internal expectations
How everyone outside the program looks at MU and what Martin expects from his team — an NCAA Tournament bid — are starkly different.
The SEC preseason media poll ranked the Tigers 13th of 14 teams.
But MU picked up 13 points in the AP poll, from one voter, Luke DeCock, ranking them 13th in the nation. The Tigers ranked sixth in the SEC among teams in the AP Top 25 and receiving votes. KenPom’s preseason rankings slot Mizzou at No. 39, which would put it right on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament and sixth in the SEC.
That’s all over the place. To Martin’s belief, he firmly believes the Tigers won’t be one of the worst teams in the SEC again — as long as they stay healthy.
“If we finish 13th in this league,” Martin said, “then this would be one of the best leagues to ever lace them up in all of college basketball.”
As a coach, Martin said he doesn’t get too wound up in those rankings. Though he admitted that would be different if he was still in uniform. He did scribble the No. 13 ranking on a whiteboard for all to see at practice one day.
As for those with an actual jersey on, Watson turned to one of Martin’s sayings: “Don’t say it, do it.”
“He tells us if we’re not putting the work in, don’t show up,” Watson said. “He’s really straightforward with us, that’s one thing that keeps us going.”