Two different basketball teams enter season with high hopes

Two different basketball teams enter season with high hopes
Missouri men's basketball enters the season looking to improve on last year's 15-17 record. Photo by Andrew Moore

Missouri’s men’s basketball looks familiar.

Its only damaging departure from last season’s roster was Jordan Geist, a pesky senior guard. Aside from him, the 2019-20 Missouri Tigers resemble last year’s squad.

With this year’s roster returning almost 65% of the team’s points and minutes, head coach Cuonzo Martin has had time to focus on reinforcing his culture.

“I think they want to win,” Martin said. “I just think when you build a program, the guys understand the accountability and what it means to be reliable, relied upon and not look at that as pressure.”

The Tigers hope to improve on a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, blemished by star sophomore Jontay Porter’s preseason ACL tear. Missouri finished the season with a 15-17 record, far from good enough to secure an NCAA Tournament berth.

If Missouri hopes to shatter its tempered expectations this season, it will need a leap from its junior big man, Jeremiah Tilmon. Playing in more minutes due to Jontay Porter’s injury last season, Tilmon posted a solid 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 54.5% from the floor.

Though the Tigers have high expectations for Tilmon, there is one crippling flaw he must correct to elevate his team: fouling. Fouling 5.9 times per 40 minutes, Tilmon too often couldn’t help his team because of foul trouble.

“When you watch him now, he’s been a dominant presence and he’s really put pressure on the defense,” Martin said. “He defends in practice without fouling. He did it a lot last year without fouling. But again, it’s just when the lights come on, the focus level has to be high.”

Though Tilmon will be a focal point in the middle, 2019 is the year of the guard for the Missouri Tigers.

“I think in most cases, we’ll have four guards on the floor,” Martin said.

Heading the guards is redshirt junior guard Dru Smith, a transfer from Evansville who sat out the 2018-19 season.

At Evansville, Smith showcased his truly unique versatility and efficiency. In his sophomore season, he posted 13.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and two steals per game, shooting 57.8% from the field and 48.2% from deep.

Martin understands the versatility Smith brings to his team. “If he led us in scoring, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Martin said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was fifth on the team in scoring just because he does so many other things and I think that’s where his value is.”

Missouri returns an important backcourt partner of Dru Smith in Mark Smith, who missed half of the season due to an ankle injury. Smith shot 45% from deep last season and played stout defense on the other end.

With Mark Smith on the floor, the Tigers went 10-9 last season. Without him, they finished 5-8.

Alongside Dru and Mark Smith, sophomores Javon Pickett, Torrance Watson and Xavier Pinson will rotate on the perimeter. “X [Pinson], Torrence and Javon played a lot of major minutes, took some lumps, learned some valuable lessons,” Martin said.

Tray Jackson, a four-star and the 77th ranked recruit in the 2019 class, headlines Missouri’s freshman class. It also added two three-star recruits in Mario McKinney and Kobe Brown.

The electric McKinney will rotate on the perimeter. Jackson and Browns’ athleticism and versatility should see them playing early. “I consider Kobe and Tray as guards as well, so they will be at the four spot,” Martin said.

In a new SEC framework, Missouri looks to build on last season and make a run at the NCAA tournament.

“On the floor or off the floor, I just want to win, get to the tournament and do whatever we can to do that,” Pinson said.

Missouri’s women’s basketball is unrecognizable.

“It’s almost like a new era,” women’s basketball coach Robin Pingeton said. “We certainly understand that and we’ve embraced it.”

This new era is defined by the departure of Sophie Cunningham, one of the greatest players in the history of the program, to the WNBA. The first All-American in program history and one of the nation’s best players will be difficult to replace.

Along with Cunningham, the Tigers saw two other impact seniors graduate: Lauren Aldridge and Cierra Porter, sister of Jontay Porter. Three non-seniors — Akira Levy, Kelsey Winfrey and Emmanuelle Tahane — all transferred to other schools.

One familiar face from last year’s team is senior guard Amber Smith, who was named to the preseason All-SEC team.

Last season, she established herself as an offensive presence, finishing second on the team in points per game (12.4) and first in rebounds per game (6.9). This season, she’s going to be a focal point of a revamped offense.

Smith’s ability to score from anywhere on the floor — with her back to the basket, from mid-range or spotting up for threes — will offer the Tigers a consistent source of offensive production.

Pingeton has high expectations for her senior star. “That’s a kid [who] should be averaging a double-double night in and night out,” she said.

Though Smith’s consistent scoring and rebounding will be important for Missouri, two newcomers could drive the team’s success.

The Tigers will bring in the 12th best-recruiting class in the country, headlined by two five-star recruits hailing from St. Louis: ninth-ranked guard Aijha Blackwell and 26th ranked forward Hayley Frank.

“They’re going to come in and make an immediate impact for us,” Pingeton said. “In particular Aijah, the most explosive and powerful athlete that I’ve coached in my … years of coaching.”

Blackwell is an elite athlete at the guard position, with the first step to penetrate and the strength to finish and draw fouls. She’s an excellent passer, with high-level vision and passing skill. Defensively, her athleticism, effort and defensive instincts allow her to smother ball-handlers and cause havoc defending on the weak side.

In her college debut, an exhibition against Truman State, she torched the Bulldogs on her way to 25 points, four rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal.

Frank provides an ideal counter to Blackwell’s aggressive playstyle. A smooth, versatile forward, Frank’s excellent shooting touch, passing skill and ball-handling ability for her size pair well with Blackwell.

They cover each other’s weaknesses well: Blackwell’s shooting struggles and defensive prowess compliment Frank’s sweet stroke and defensive issues perfectly.

“[They play] two different styles but yet they complement each other so well,” Pingeton said.

Seniors Jordan Roundtree and Hannah Schuchts will play a significant role for the Tigers.

“We expect that our seniors definitely step up to the plate for us,” Pingeton said. “They’ve been here, they understand our system, the expectations, the standards that we have.”

During the offseason, Missouri landed three transfers: junior Ladazhia Williams, senior Shug Dickson and senior Shannon Dufficy, none of whom are currently eligible to play.

“If there was an early Christmas present, we’d be really excited, but I think at this point, where we’re at, we’re not counting on those kids being able to play immediately,” Pingeton said.

The 2019-20 Missouri Tigers hardly resemble the team that made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year. Yet, optimism still surrounds the team.

“The expectations we have of our program are that we continue to raise the bar and compete for championships,” Pingeton said.

Edited by Wilson Moore |

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