X-Factor: Where Xavier Pinson goes, Missouri basketball follows

The junior guard leads the team in scoring early while leading a dynamic offense.

Despite a small sample size, Missouri is off to one of its hottest starts in years.

The Tigers are averaging 20 points per game more than last season and playing at a faster tempo than in years past. If Missouri defeats Wichita State on Sunday afternoon, it will advance to 3-0 for the first time since the 2013-14 season.

Where did this Tigers team come from? They are nearly identical to last year’s team that finished 15-16 and 288th in scoring.

It all starts with No. 1.

When junior guard Xavier Pinson is on the floor, the rest of the world is in slow motion. As soon as the ball hits his hands, he wants to make something happen. If Pinson gets an outlet pass in transition, bless the heart of the man who tries to keep up with and defend him.

“He is a highlight reel waiting to happen,” former Missouri basketball player Jarrett Sutton said on the SEC Network+ call from the Tigers’ 91-64 win over Oral Roberts.

Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin emphasized a jolt in the team’s pace of play at the beginning of the season, and Pinson is one of the biggest facilitators of the shift.

Pinson played a catalyst role in Missouri’s first two games against Oral Roberts and Oregon. He shot over 50%, averaged 19.5 points per game and made some dazzling plays in transition during the season-opening victories.

This quality of play did not come from out of nowhere. In Missouri’s final nine games of the 2019-20 season, Pinson averaged 18.9 points per game, including a 28-point effort in the Tigers’ upset win over No. 11 Auburn. The 170 points over that stretch were the most by a Missouri player since 2014.

“I feel confident and better than last year, so I’m ready to see what we all got,” Pinson said.

The Chicago native started 23 games in his first two seasons in Columbia, but this year is different. Pinson began his freshman and sophomore years coming off the bench. He then worked his way into the starting lineup halfway through Southeastern Conference play.

Now, he’s elevated his game. In his junior year, Martin inserted Pinson into the starting five on day one.

Pinson opened the season shooting 7-12 from the field and 17 points against Oral Roberts, then upped his production with 22 points against Oregon, 19 of which came in the second half when everyone else aside from Javon Pickett went ice-cold.

Along with his impressive stats, he brings a spark to the offense with his speed and explosiveness that makes him a SportsCenter Top 10 contender every night.

Despite his success, Pinson rarely ever talks about himself and his personal accomplishments. His “we, not me” mentality permeates everything whether it’s strengthening connections amongst the team or getting everyone to run at the same pace.

“From one through 11, we all worked hard, and myself and other guys made sure of it,” Pinson said after the Oral Roberts game. “It showed how we bond and communicate off the court.”

Pinson possesses the heart and mentality of a point guard on and off the court. When he’s on the drive, Pinson’s head is always up, looking for a teammate to pass. When he’s talking to the media, he’s always thinking of ways to compliment or praise others — whether it’s his teammates in the backcourt, the big men who get up and down the floor on the fast break or the fans who support the team from a distance.

The new pace is fast, yes. But Pinson is not content with that. He wants to go even faster and make a run to the school’s first SEC Championship.

“I still honestly don’t think that the pace was there,” said Pinson. “Our pace is way faster than that in practice, but we’re getting there.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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