From a pure talent perspective, the Missouri Tigers should make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
MU coach Cuonzo Martin has plenty of guards he can trust. Dru Smith is an intriguing mystery, while Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson and Mark Smith will all likely see extended playing time. The four-guard, one-forward lineup is likely in Mizzou’s future.
Jeremiah Tilmon is back and he should be busy as the offensive centerpiece for Mizzou. But that all depends whether he can stay on the floor. Kobe Brown, Tray Jackson, Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko will be in the mix alongside and behind Tilmon.
This should be an energizing season for a Tigers team that struggled last season. Of course, that always depends on health.
Here are five bold predictions for the upcoming hoops season.
Five bold predictions
Jeremiah Tilmon stays on the court, takes a three-pointer: Mizzou’s going as far as Tilmon takes them. That’s on both sides of the court, especially on offense as Martin will rely on the forward heavily. After a spotty two years where foul trouble defined his game, the junior will take that leap into being able to stay on the court. He even gets some NBA noise as a 6-foot-10 bruiser. Tilmon’s also at the point where he’s shooting three-point shots in practice to space the floor. Look for him to bust out a three-pointer later in the season on a play where his defender gets lazy and leaves him open.
Mizzou earns a marquee SEC win … and a brutal loss: The Tigers beat either Florida or Kentucky early in conference play, bolstering their resume and setting themselves up as SEC contenders. The win puts them in the national spotlight, but then suffers an uncharacteristic loss that brings them down. Think Texas A&M or maybe even Vanderbilt. It’ll show the highs and lows of a team capable of making some noise in the postseason.
Dru Smith lives up to the hype: It’s finally time for fans to see who Dru Smith is after a year relegated to the scout team. He had to sit a season because of NCAA transfer rules, but that didn’t stop him from gathering hype for his passing and floor general abilities. Martin’s already compared the guard to Jontay Porter, capable of affecting the game without scoring. Watson also said he expects Dru Smith to lead the SEC in passing. By the end of the season, the 6-foot-3 guard ends up as the second most important player for the Tigers.
Kobe Brown becomes a pleasant surprise: It was slightly unexpected when Brown earned the start against Central Missouri. While it’s still early, Martin said he enjoys what he’s seen out of the freshman. Brown should battle fellow rookie Tray Jackson and others at the forward position. Of course, expect freshman mistakes from him. He’s unafraid to shoot three-pointers, so that helps with spacing on the floor. He’ll need to be more aggressive and drive to the basket more if he wants to become a difference-maker. He’ll be a solid building block for the next few years based on his play.
Slow start, strong finish: Despite beating one of Kentucky or Florida early in the conference season, the Tigers still struggle out of the gates in the SEC. They face a number of difficult games early, from Tennessee, Mississippi State and Alabama. However, after weathering a brutal start, they finish strong and with a winning record in conference play, which should be enough for the NCAA Tournament.
Regular-season projection: 19-12, 10-8 SEC
After sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, the SEC proved itself to be one of the best basketball conferences in the country. Luckily, MU faces Florida and Kentucky just once each this season. The nonconference schedule provides some exciting games, including Butler, Xavier, and potentially Oklahoma at the Hall of Fame Classic. Based on the wins in the nonconference, it should bolster a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.
March projection: NCAA Tournament
Look, it’s impossible to accurately predict how far a team goes in the NCAA Tournament. However, based on how their season goes and if the Tigers earn an at-large bid, their first-round matchup should be a winnable game. Even if they’re in a No. 8 vs. No. 9 seed matchup, that’ll give MU the chance to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since the 2009-10 season.