Note: Due to the timing of this release, 3MW made the (seemingly safe) assumption that Jontay Porter will reclass to 2017 and enroll at Mizzou for the 17-18 season. Should he remain in 2018, this preview will be revised.
Key Returners: Terrence Phillips, Kevin Puryear, Jordan Barnett, Jordan Geist
Key Losses: Russell Woods, Frankie Hughes, KJ Walton
Key Newcomers: Michael Porter Jr., Jeremiah Tilmon, Blake Harris, Kassius Robertson, CJ Roberts, Jontay Porter
Outlook: Welcome to Columbia, Cuonzo! We hope you enjoy your three-year stay (kidding...maybe). After three years of wallowing in the dark, stinky armpit of the blah SEC, Mizzou fans are finally feeling something they haven’t felt in years: hope! Rarely has one family lifted the spirits of a basketball program so dramatically, but the additions of #1 recruit and possible #1 draft pick Michael Porter Jr. along with his highly talented brother Jontay Porter (who graduated a year early and re-classed from 2018 to play with Michael) has brought a feverish excitement back to the Tiger fanbase. Outrageous claims abound, some of which seem insane – hell, even Vegas has them in the top 20 of title odds – but more than anything, it’s just refreshing to see a relatively strong historical program claw out of the hoops muck and back into national relevancy.
In the past three seasons, Mizzou has won a combined eight (8!) SEC regular season games; exceeding that combined total this year would lift Martin’s team to a .500 league record at minimum, but the crazy part is that it’s a pretty reasonable expectation. The league has improved all around the Tigers – this year’s conference is a far cry from the barely-3-bid-league of 2015-16 – but even with that, the talent level in Columbia is finally high enough to eye a tournament berth. The biggest improvements will need to come in putting the biscuit in the basket; they haven’t finished better than 173rd in KenPom’s offensive rankings since Frank Haith’s final campaign in 2013-14.
No one is going to confuse Cuonzo Martin for an offensive wizard, so thankfully, he went out and hired...Cornell Mann, Iowa State’s former defensive coach? Wanting to build a facsimilie of the Cyclones’ spread-out, transition-oriented offense (top-12 in the country for 5 straight seasons) is a noble goal (and I’ll never be upset about hiring the guy who recruited Monte Morris), but I’m just not sure this is the correct way to go about it. Martin has infused the roster with offensive talent, but it remains to be seen whether that potential reaches its lofty ceiling.
Point guard Terrence Phillips is finally in the situation he’s always needed: maestro of a quick offense with a plethora of offensive weapons around him. He set the assists record at Oak Hill Academy! The guy lives to pass! Mizzou’s lack of talent forced him to score for an offensively incompetent team (double meaning there) for two years, but with the additions of the Porters, Jeremiah Tilmon, and Kassius Robertson along with the return of Jordan Barnett, the idea of Mizzou looking Iowa State-esque does not seem so impossible. The addition of freshman guards Blake Harris and CJ Roberts will also help give Martin more ball-handling and shooting options on the perimeter (likely relegating the pedestrian Jordan Geist and Cullen Van Leer to small bench roles), further opening up the offense.
Michael Porter himself should raise the offense’s efficiency through sheer osmosis. He’s a legit go-to guy who can score from anywhere on the court, whether it’s with his smooth jumper or via attacking the rim and finishing with his length and touch. Continuing to draw parallels to Iowa State’s recent offenses, I’d love to see Mizzou use Porter in much the same vein that ISU used Georges Niang’s unique skillset. The ‘Clones often made Niang the screener in wing pick-and-pops while clearing that side of the floor, allowing Niang the choice to a) shoot, b) attack the closeout of a recovering big man, or c) back down a guard in the event of a switch. MPJ would be a nightmare in action like this:
Porter is capable of being a similar matchup nightmare (and more); his size and skill combo make him nearly impossible to guard. Robertson, Phillips, Roberts, Harris, and his brother Jontay give him some decent shooting options, so he will need to learn to distribute out of double-teams. I’m definitely hoping to see him melded into dynamic offensive sets, rather than expected to score in boring iso-ball (as Jaylen Brown was often asked to do at Cal under Cuonzo).
Martin-coached teams have found far more success on the defensive end, as he’s cultivated a conservative, half-court-based man-to-man system predicated on forcing two-point jumpers and cleaning the defensive glass. The Tigers will run shooters off the three-point line, forcing them to put the ball on the floor and attempt to finish against size in the interior or pull up for tough mid-range jumpers. To wit: Martin’s Cal teams gave up the 12th- and 13th-highest share of two-point jumpers the past two seasons, per hoop-math, generally a sign of the defense dictating the offense’s shot selection.
Mizzou has lacked rim protectors recently, but the additions of Tilmon and both Porters give them real athletic size that should challenge would-be finishers at the rim. Those three (and a full season of Barnett) should also help Martin’s pathological distate for allowing offensive rebounds. One concern with playing so much youth on the interior is that fouls may pile up, though. Junior Kevin Puryear provides some depth, but he’s undersized and hasn’t rebounded or blocked shots at acceptable levels for a true big. Overall, though, the major infusion of athleticism gives this squad a fairly high ceiling on the defensive end.
Bottom Line: To paraphrase college hoops fanatic Jonny Rothstein, the buzz in Columbia is palpable. At long last, the much-maligned Tigers program appears to be ready to compete again, and Mizzou fans are hopeful this season is the start of a successful tenure for Martin back in the Midwest. The biggest two factors will be using the new offensive weapons the correct way, primarily MPJ, and getting the entire roster, including many youngsters, to buy into an intense, disciplined defensive system, and the Men of the Weave are cautiously optimistic that things will fall into place.