There were bound to be ups and downs for the Missouri men’s basketball team as it entered Southeastern Conference play.
Of the seven Tigers who have played 15 minutes or more this season, five of them are underclassmen. Three of them, Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett, are freshmen.
Missouri has counted heavily on its 2018 recruiting class this season. Through the first half of the conference season, Missouri senior guard Jordan Geist said the one thing he’s learned the most about the team, is that the underclassmen have fight.
“Sometimes when young guys deal with some adversity, they tend to give up, but these guys just get in the gym every day and keep working,” Geist, who is leading the team with 13.7 points and playing 32 minutes per game, said.
That fight was on full display in Missouri’s 72-60 loss to No. 1 Tennessee on Tuesday.
Moral victories aren’t things that get you into the NCAA Tournament or move you up the SEC standings — where Missouri is sitting in 10th with a 11-10 (2-7 SEC) record — but it is something people take notice of.
Martin said Missouri’s young players had to learn what it meant to fight on the floor.
“I think some of our young guys learned tough lessons, but valuable lessons, and I think they’ll be better for it,” Martin said. “I just think, of course we are better now, but you go through the seasons with ups and downs.”
Watson, who is averaging five points and 19.8 minutes per game, has had his share of ups and downs. He earned his first start this year, but has also seen himself sit on the bench for long stretches of games as well. The same holds true for Pinson, who is averaging 6.2 points in 16.8 minutes. Pinson had arguably his best game of the year at Tennessee, scoring 10 points and pulling down eight rebounds.
Pickett has started every game, though he hasn’t had his minutes fluctuate. He has had up and down games as well.
“Coming in we all struggled a little bit, but you can see the growth,” Watson said. “We are all doing better. Coming in, struggling and having to go through that together made a big difference.”
Watson said the younger players have talked about what the future might look like if they stay together.
“We are focused on this year and making sure we finish out strong as possible, but we have,” Watson said. “Knowing we are young guys, and if we keep building and getting people to come to this program, we’ll have a chance to win a championship someday.”
Before we can look ahead to what the freshmen might bring Missouri in future years, there is still another half of the conference slate to play.
Martin said, during Friday’s media session, that he would talk to his team about long-term goals. He also wants to keep them focused on the day-to-day grind of the season.
Part of that grind is to keep the focus on taking care of the ball.
In Missouri’s two games since being blown out by 34 at Auburn, the Tigers have turned the ball over 18 times. One game led to a win at home against Vanderbilt, the other was the loss to Tennessee, each game Missouri finished with nine turnovers.
“We are a different team when we take care of the ball,” Martin said.
Martin will admit that there are some things that have gone on, that he didn’t expect this year. He didn’t expect Kevin Puryear, who is averaging a career-low 7.4 points, to struggle offensively the way he is. Also, he didn’t expect to get Mark Smith eligible either.
“I try to control what you can control,” Martin said. “If you are sound defensively and take care of the basketball, you give yourself a chance to win the game.”
Missouri’s final nine games, aren’t the same gauntlet it went through in the last nine games. Home games against Texas A&M, Arkansas, South Carolina and Mississippi are all winnable games. As is the road trip to Georgia and even at Mississippi, who has lost four of their last five games.
That road begins with Texas A&M at 5 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena. Missouri may be without Smith for the fifth straight game, as he still isn’t practicing after spraining his ankle at Arkansas on Jan. 22.