When it comes to basketball, the Missouri Tigers are a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
The Tigers were supposed to provide some depth to the conference’s basketball landscape when they jumped from the Big 12 to the SEC. Missouri was a regular in the NCAA Tournament, earning a bid 15 times from 1980 to 2000; and from Y2K to their last season as a Big 12 school in 2012, the Tigers went dancing eight times.
Since joining the SEC?
Missouri has made the NCAA tournament once. And instead of bolstering the league, the Tigers have been beaten up on by the other 13 members of the conference. Since joining the SEC, Missouri has a losing record against every school besides Auburn and Vanderbilt and those two records are only 5-4 and 4-3 respectively.
The Tigers limped to a 15-17 season in 2018-19 and finished third to last in the league at 5-13. Where does Missouri go from here? That’s what Rock M Nation’s Sam Snelling and I discussed. You can follow Sam at @SamTSnelling.
1. Missouri finished at the bottom of the SEC standings last year and the league seems to only be getting stronger. Is there a fear that history could repeat itself this year?
Quite simply no. Cuonzo Martin is a better coach than that, and I think Missouri’s returning talent level is being undersold. Mizzou finished 5-13 without Jontay Porter for the entire season, the SEC’s best 3-point shooter in Mark Smith for the final 15 games of the season, and one of their SEC losses (a bad home loss to A&M) was without Jeremiah Tilmon. Yes they still only finished 4 spots in KenPom behind 8-10 Alabama, and 2 spots ahead of 11-7 South Carolina. Mizzou returns more production than just about any school in the SEC. There’s a reason Missouri fans are quietly confident about this years team and it’s mostly because SEC fans seem to think the program is what it was under Kim Anderson.
Cuonzo Martin has been around enough that he can coach up a defense, and now he’s got enough shot makers to improve on an offense which struggled last year with so much youth. I think Missouri’s chances to getting back to the NCAA tournament are higher this year than them finishing 12th again.
2. Cuonzo Martin has never coached beyond three years at any school. What will he have to do to make it to year four?
Martin’s coaching tenure requires a lot of context. He left Missouri State for Tennessee, was building back the Vols when the rug was pulled from beneath his feet. I’m not sure many coaches would feel like sticking around a job where boosters stopped letting you use a plane for recruiting and there were petitions to fire you and re-hire a coach with a show cause.
So he took the job at Cal, but that was always going to be temporary as he’s a Midwestern guy and is going to fit better closer to home. When Martin made the NCAA tournament in year 1, his contract kicked in a clause which will keep him at Missouri through the next few years. He’s told people privately he wants Mizzou to be his last head coaching job. It’s two hours from where he grew up. I think as long as Martin is winning and has the desire to coach he’ll be the head coach at Missouri.
3. The Tigers have some massive out of conference games: Xavier, Butler, Illinois and West Virginia for the Big 12/SEC Challenge. What are we going to learn about the Tigers in the first few weeks of the season?
You forgot a road trip to Temple as well.
But it’s one of those situations where they’re all tough games, but they’re all winnable also. This is a perfect schedule to build an NCAA resume. They’re games which are more in the toss up range than taking a road loss so as long as they don’t go 0-5 in those games they should be fine. Go 3-2 or better and suddenly the tournament committee will take notice over your true road wins, and neutral court success.
The benefit of it is you are going to learn what the ceiling of the team is very quickly. Just don’t bomb out and you’re fine, but each win is another building block for how good the team can really be.
4. Jeremiah Tilmon is a name SEC hoops fans should familiarize themselves with. What makes Tilmon stand out?
He’s got tremendous fundamental footwork and soft hands. When you’re 6’11 and 250 lbs that’s advantageous. He’s actually one of the best passers out of double teams in the country, and he is capable of completely changing floor angles for Missouri’s shooters. This means when Tilmon is on the floor, Missouri’s offense is exponentially better. With Tilmon on the court last year, Missouri had a Points per possession of 1.05, with Tilmon off the floor it was 0.96. The biggest difference was the 3-point percentage which was nearly 40% with Tilmon on the court and just 33% with him off. Clearly just his presence on the floor is important.
Tilmon’s issue since he’s arrived on campus has been more on the mental side. He gets frustrated and will pick up unnecessary fouls, most of them on the offensive side. His turnover rate is about 23% and a lot of those are offensive fouls. He improved his minutes per game while in foul trouble by nearly 70% over his freshman year, so if he can stay on the court for about 28-30 minutes a game this year I think you’ll see an SEC level big man.
5. If Missouri is going to be successful in 2019-20, what will be the reason? And conversely, what could prove to be Missouri’s undoing?
The reason will be health first and foremost. Two years in a row the Tigers have lost an NBA level talent before the season was underway. While the Porter era is largely over in Columbia, the disappointment of dealing with those injuries is still hanging over the program in expectations around the league. I expect Martin to coach them up defensively, so if Missouri can find their way into the top half of the league on offense I think you’ll see them in the NCAA tournament.
Their undoing? Again, health. To me the keys for the Tigers lie in Jeremiah Tilmon’s hands, plus Evansville transfer Dru Smith, and Mark Smith, who is returning from foot surgery. If those guys are healthy and playing well the rest of the roster can fill in around them. If any one of the three drops off or gets hurt the struggle to patch holes might be a bit too much. I like Missouri’s depth, but I like it more when those three are playing.