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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Missouri Tigers

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Missouri has Michael Porter Jr.! And, well, they won eight games all of last year...

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Missouri Tigers 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Cuonzo Martin (first year at Missouri; 186-121 overall, 9 years as head coach)

Last year: 8-24 (2-16 SEC), KenPom rating: 156

Returning Starters: 3

Returning possession-minutes: 64.3%

Recruiting class ranking: #4 nationally, #2 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

The best thing you could say about the 2016-17 Missouri Tigers is that they played hard. In spite of being outmanned on most nights, they never appeared to quit on the season even though it would have been very easy to do so. Sitting at 0-9 in the SEC, and 5-16 overall, after their worst loss of the season — a 93-54 loss to Florida on February 2 — Missouri rallied to win its first conference game, an 83-78 home win over Arkansas.

And after a close road loss at Texas A&M, they managed to beat Vanderbilt — by 20! — for their second conference win. They lost their final six games of the regular season, but four of the losses came by 11 points or less. They managed to extend Kim Anderson’s tenure by a game with an overtime win over Auburn in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

That was a hell of a lot better than LSU, which finished tied in the standings with Missouri but seemed largely uninterested in competing down the stretch. But it wasn’t enough to save Anderson’s job; he was relieved of his duties shortly after the season ended with an 8-24 record. He won a national title at Division II Central Missouri but seemed overmatched from day one in the SEC; in three years, his record in SEC games was 8-46.

To put that in perspective, former Auburn coach Tony Barbee — the recent gold standard for coaching hires that crashed and burned — won 12 SEC games in his first three years (and was given a fourth year, but that’s besides the point right now.) KA’s last team fielded the worst offense in the conference on a per-possession basis, and while the defense was slightly better, it was still the third-worst in the league.

So... this is a major rebuild, right? Except that Missouri managed to land Cuonzo Martin —formerly of Cal and, before that, Tennessee and Missouri State — to be its new head coach. The native of East St. Louis gets kind of a negative rap from a lot of basketball fans, but he’s managed to average 20 wins a year in his nine seasons as a college head coach.

And then, in the span of a few weeks in March and April, Martin proceeded to completely revamp the roster. He hired Michael Porter Sr. to be an assistant coach, and that led to Michael Porter Jr. — the #2 recruit in the 2017 recruiting class and a likely top-three pick in the 2018 NBA Draft — and Jontay Porter becoming Tigers.

In addition to the Porters, Martin added another former Washington commit in Blake Harris, who was released from his Letter of Intent after Lorenzo Romar was fired. He added Jeremiah Tilmon, who like Martin, is an East St. Louis native that was released from a Letter of Intent to Illinois after a coaching change there.

Those four joined C.J. Roberts, an Anderson recruit who had signed in November, to give Mizzou the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation (per 247 Sports.) Later in the spring, Martin added Kassius Robertson, a graduate transfer from Canisius who averaged 16.1 points per game.

Suddenly, a team that had won 27 games in three years was a threat to match that win total in 2017-18. Okay, that might be a little bit of a stretch, but at least one outlet gave Missouri 16-to-1 odds of winning a national title.

That seems like a bit much. There’s basically no precedent for a team this bad adding a Top 5 recruiting class — but the track record of mediocre teams adding Top 5 recruiting classes is mixed at best, and you might not want to look at what NC State did last year. There’s a huge difference between a last-place SEC team and a Final Four team, and that difference consists of a lot more than Michael Porter Jr.

Still, there’s a hell of a lot more optimism surrounding the program than there was last year. And that counts for something, right?


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
5 Mitchell Smith 6'11" So. 2.4 ppg/1.7 rpg; tore ACL
11 Jontay Porter 6'11" Fr. #25 recruit
13 Michael Porter Jr. 6'10" Fr. #2 recruit
14 Reed Nikko 6'10" So. 2.6 ppg/2.3 rpg/0.7 bpg
21 Jordan Barnett 6'7" Sr. 12.2 ppg/5.7 rpg
23 Jeremiah Tilmon 6'10" Fr. #42 recruit
24 Kevin Puryear 6'7" Jr. 11.8 ppg/6.0 rpg
32 Adam Wolf 6'7" Jr. walk-on

Missouri’s top two scorers and rebounders from a year ago – Jordan Barnett and Kevin Puryear – are not guaranteed to start this season.

But that says a lot more about the newcomers than it does about Barnett and Puryear. Barnett became eligible at midseason after sitting out as a transfer from Texas. In 23 games and 13 starts, he led the team by averaging 12.2 points per game and shot a cool 58.6 percent inside the arc. He also averaged 5.7 rebounds per game, second on the team.

That said, he shot more threes than twos and shot just 30 percent on them – not a good sign. But on a team with few offensive weapons, Barnett had to at least try to do a lot. The same could be said for Puryear, who averaged 11.8 points and 6.0 rebounds as a sophomore; but Puryear saw his field goal percentage drop from 46.5 percent as a freshman to 40.9 percent as a sophomore. That’s … not good.

Then again, you can argue that both Barnett and Puryear are better suited to be supporting players. That’s what will probably happen with the arrival of Michael Porter Jr. At 6-foot-10, 215 lbs., NBADraft.net compares Porter to Kevin Durant – and the fact that such a comparison can be made with a straight face tells you what kind of talent we’re dealing with here. With good length and athleticism and a good jump shot – he shot 86 percent from the foul line as a high school senior – Porter will be Mizzou’s leading scorer from day one. And he is a legitimate threat to lead the SEC in scoring. He’s that good.

Porter’s length and athleticism will help shore up a defense that struggled to defend the paint last year. In SEC play, opponents shot 52.1 percent inside the arc, the second-worst mark in the league. So too will his younger brother Jontay – another five-star recruit who reclassified from the 2018 class. The younger Porter is a bigger body at 6-foot-11 and 240 lbs. While not as offensively skilled as his older brother, Jontay also has the ability to step back and hit jump shots. He should give Missouri another scoring option that they lacked last season.

Four-star freshman Jeremiah Tilmon gives Missouri another big man to challenge shots in the paint. Though his offensive game is still developing and he’s a bit raw compared to the Porters. For a title contender, Tilmon would be a guy playing 10-15 minutes a night off the bench, though he might play more than that here.

A pair of 6-foot-10 sophomores – Reed Nikko and Mitchell Smith – give Missouri a couple of extra bodies off the bench. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s five players on the roster who are 6-foot-10 or taller. Smith showed some promise early last season before tearing his ACL; Nikko’s 7.6 percent block rate would have ranked 8th in the SEC had he played enough minutes to qualify.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 C.J. Roberts 6'0" Fr. #169 recruit
1 Terrence Phillips 5'11" Jr. 10.4 ppg/4.4 apg
2 Ronnie Suggs 6'6" Jr. sitting out 2017-18
3 Kassius Robertson 6'3" Sr. 16.1 ppg at Canisius
10 Brett Rau 6'4" Sr. walk-on
15 Jordan Geist 6'2" Jr. 7.0 ppg/2.0 apg
33 Cullen VanLeer 6'4" Jr. 5.6 ppg/1.8 rpg
55 Blake Harris 6'3" Fr. #120 recruit

If Missouri is loaded with talent in the frontcourt, the backcourt might hold the team back. Terrence Phillips, a 5-foot-11 junior, has started 54 games over the last two years. He enters this season as the favorite to be the starting point guard. Though like Puryear and Barnett in the frontcourt, Phillips is a guy who played a bigger role than he probably should have been. Still, his 33.6 percent assist rate led the SEC, and while he could stand to cut his turnover rate, he’s been a steady presence on the team. But it’s a fairly safe bet that he won’t take the second-most shots on the team again.

Phillips will have competition from a pair of freshmen. He’s still the safe bet to start, though. Blake Harris, at 6-foot-3, and C.J. Roberts, at 6-foot, were both four-star recruits (depending on who you asked) and could see playing time immediately. Harris has good court vision and would also likely be an improvement over Phillips defensively; Missouri frequently struggled to defend the perimeter in SEC play last year. However, his jump shot is an open question and could be enough of a liability to relegate him to the bench. Roberts is an explosive athlete, but scouts say he needs to work on his decision making in the halfcourt.

Last season, Missouri got a lot of minutes out of Jordan Geist (22.1 MPG) and Cullen VanLeer (23.7 MPG), though both seem ticketed for bench roles this season with the arrival of Kassius Robertson, a graduate transfer from Canisius. At Canisius, Robertson averaged 16.1 points and also shot 41 percent from three – a needed quality for the SEC’s worst-shooting team a year ago. VanLeer came to Missouri with a reputation as a shooter, but he’s shot 30.6 percent beyond the arc over two years (33.3 percent last year). That will have to improve if he’s going to get playing time for this team.

Geist is best described as “scrappy” at 6-foot-2 and 180 lbs. He has a knack for drawing contact, but he seems too limited to start 14 games again as the talent level around him improves dramatically. However, Geist has some value as a guy who can play both guard positions off the bench.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/10 Iowa State
11/13 Wagner
11/16 at Utah
11/20 Emporia State
11/23 vs. Long Beach State
11/24 AdvoCare Invitational
11/26 AdvoCare Invitational
11/30 at UCF
12/5 Miami (Ohio)
12/9 Green Bay
12/16 North Florida
12/19 Stephen F. Austin
12/23 vs. Illinois (@ St. Louis, MO)
1/3 at South Carolina
1/6 Florida
1/10 Georgia
1/13 at Arkansas
1/17 Tennessee
1/20 at Texas A&M
1/24 Auburn
1/27 at Mississippi State
1/31 at Alabama
2/3 Kentucky
2/6 at Ole Miss
2/10 Mississippi State
2/13 Texas A&M
2/17 at LSU
2/20 Ole Miss
2/24 at Kentucky
2/27 at Vanderbilt
3/3 Arkansas

Missouri’s nonconference schedule is reasonably ambitious for a young team coming off an 8-24 season – though not too ambitious. The Tigers open the season with a test against a former nonconference rival in Iowa State.

But that might be the only team on the nonconference schedule that made the NCAA Tournament in 2017 (and let’s not forget that Iowa State lost basically everybody off that team!) The AdvoCare Invitational field is almost laughably weak: Missouri will open with Long Beach State (15-19 a year ago) and will follow that with either St. John’s (14-19) or Oregon State (5-27). While either of those could be improved, neither will be a win to hang their hats on in March. Missouri might see West Virginia in the final game, which would represent one of the few opportunities for a quality nonconference win.

There are also road trips to Utah and UCF and the annual rivalry game against Illinois in St. Louis. They won’t play in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and while most of the remaining nonconference games aren’t exactly walkovers, they’re also not terribly impressive, either. Green Bay, which ranked 190th in KenPom last year, is the best of the bunch. In short, Missouri’s nonconference schedule is designed to produce a pretty record that’s mostly devoid of substance. If the freshmen are ready, Missouri could better its win total from last season before Christmas.

In SEC play, Missouri draws Kentucky twice but aside from that, the conference slate seems pretty manageable. Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M are the other teams on the schedule twice.


Outlook

It’s hard to imagine how a new coach could have been more successful before coaching his first game. Cuonzo Martin stepped in and almost overnight turned Missouri into a team that will, at the very least, challenge for a NCAA Tournament bid and might do even more than that. Granted, Martin got a pretty significant assist from two other coaching changes: Washington’s (admittedly long-overdue) decision to fire Lorenzo Romar freed up the Porters and Blake Harris to go elsewhere. John Groce getting fired at Illinois led indirectly to Jeremiah Tilmon ending up here. Without that, Martin might not have been able to shore up the talent level so quickly.

And let’s not forget: This is a program that’s won eight SEC games in three years. The influx of talent is great. You might argue most of the departed players weren’t SEC-quality and the few returnees were among the better players on a bad team, basically all optimism is on the newcomers. Barnett, Puryear, and Phillips could all shine in reduced roles. You never really know what kind of effect it will have to ask a team’s leading scorers to move into smaller roles to accommodate (admittedly better) freshmen.

You could argue accurately that Kentucky in recent years has turned over the roster on an annual basis and had great success doing so. But then, outside of Michael Porter Jr., this isn’t that kind of recruiting class. Jontay Porter has enormous upside but isn’t as polished as his older brother; Jeremiah Tilmon, Blake Harris, and C.J. Roberts look more like four-year players than one-and-dones. Aside from MPJ, can you convince me that any player on this team would start for Kentucky or Duke?

But – oh, Michael Porter Jr. is really, really good. That fact alone means that Missouri has tantalizing upside. The question is whether the players around him are going to be up to snuff, particularly in the backcourt. If the answer is yes, Missouri is an SEC title contender and could do even more than that.

Still, the sticking point for me is that if you take away Michael Porter Jr., Missouri is an eight-win team that just added a promising recruiting class that might or might not provide a ton of production right away. Really, Missouri seems like a team that’s a year away. Michael Porter Jr. is (probably) enough to get them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. But a Final Four contender? I’ll believe it when I see it.