Early adversity, key losses provide challenges for Mizzou

Circumstances deal revitalized Mizzou another cruel blow as it looks to build on last season’s success

Always known as an standout basketball school through its time in the Big Eight and Big 12 conferences, the Missouri Tiger program fell on hard times after moving to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 2012.

Although Missouri’s history is filled with elite players like Anthony Peeler, Steve Stipanovich and Kareem Rush, that rich tradition has meant nothing in the SEC, and the team hasn’t matched the success of yesteryear when legendary coach Norm Stewart stormed the Hearnes Center with unmatched passion. A program that has five Elite Eight trips, 26 NCAA Tournament appearances, eight Big Eight Regular Season and six Big Eight Tourney titles has failed to win one league championship since joining the SEC.

Missouri great Anthony Peeler | Photo courtesy Mizzou Athletics

Missouri hit rock bottom in 2016 at 8-24, and after a miserable three-year stretch where the Tigers went 27-68 (8-46 SEC), Mizzou officials needed to find a head coach to turn the program around. On March 15, 2017, the Tigers appointed former Tennessee and University of California at Berkeley coach Cuonzo Martin (206-134) to the same position.

Head Coach Cuonzo Martin | Photo courtesy Mizzou Athletics

Just a few days later, prized recruit Michael Porter Jr. opted to stay in his native state and committed to Mizzou. With Porter Jr. in tow, Mizzou appeared ready to leap from the SEC cellar back into relevance. Unfortunately in November 2017, all appeared lost after Porter Jr. suffered a severe lower back injury that sidelined him for 31 games.

However, the Tigers rallied behind seniors Kassius Robertson (16.3 ppg) and Jordan Barnett (13.7 ppg/5.9 rpg), finished 20-13 (10-8 in the SEC) and secured an NCAA tournament bid. Although Florida State ousted Mizzou 67-54 in the first round, the Tigers showed drastic improvement throughout 2017-18.

Jordan Geist at team practice on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. | Photo courtesy Mizzou Athletics

The Tigers face a steep challenge with Porter Jr.’s entry in the 2018 NBA Draft along with the graduations of Robertson and Barnett. Also, Porter Jr.’s brother, Jontay, who averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season — numbers that projected to 16.1 ppg and 11.1 rpg when averaged over 40 minutes — was to play a pivotal role in the Tigers’ upcoming season. Unfortunately for Porter and Mizzou, the 6-foot-11 forward tore his ACL and MCL in a scrimmage and is lost for the season. Porter’s ability to make mid-range and three-point shots along with his passing acumen will be greatly missed.

Former Mizzou coach Norm Stewart | Photo courtesy Mizzou Athletics

Now forward Jeremiah Tilmon has to stay out of the foul trouble that hampered him last year and give the Tigers a fraction of Porter’s production. Also, Torrence Watson (31 ppg/6.7 rpg), a top recruit from St. Louis, strolls onto campus with lofty expectations and big shoes to fill. The four-star recruit has Mizzou fans hoping his scoring prowess can make the leap at the college level.

Martin said of Watson, “It’s just a matter of us being able to put him in position to be successful, giving him the confidence from day one to understand, ‘Do what you do in high school. Just take it to the next level.’”

Senior point guard Jordan Geist (7.3 ppg/2.9 apg) will need to become more of a playmaker in his final season to make things easier on Watson. If Geist cannot increase his assists totals, Watson will have opposing defenses clamping down on him. Martin hopes that Illinois-Chicago transfer K.J. Santos (7.1 ppg/4.2 rpg) will bring more mid-major magic like Robertson did.

Jeremiah Tilton against Kentucky on February 3, 2018 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. | Photo courtesy Mizzou Athletics

While the departures of Porter Jr., Robertson and Barnett along with Porter’s injury is troublesome, expect Mizzou to use a soft non-conference schedule to prepare for the grind of league play. It will be important for Martin to keep his team focused during a trip to the Virgin Islands in mid-November for the Paradise Jam Tournament, where the competition will include Kansas State, the University of Pennsylvania, Northern Iowa and Oregon State among others. A Dec. 22 showdown with Illinois in St. Louis will provide additional insight as to how the Tigers are progressing in preparation for league play.

Mizzou should remain competitive in the SEC and be on the bubble for a second consecutive year despite the loss of four key contributors due to departure and injury. Look for Watson to be in contention for newcomer of the year, and keep the shorthanded Tigers in position for an another NCAA bid. H&A

All photos courtesy Mizzou Athletics 

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