Core intact, Mizzou hoops looks to ascend SEC

Eric Blum
The Examiner
Missouri's Mitchell Smith (5) tries to grab a loose ball while Tennessee's Yves Pons (35) attempts to do the same during a Southeastern Conference game in January at Mizzou Arena.

Now that the COVID-delayed deadline to withdraw from the NBA Draft has passed, there is at least some clarity on where each Southeastern Conference men’s basketball sprogram stands heading into the 2020-21 season.

Missouri, which retains Jeremiah Tilmon, Xavier Pinson and Mitchell Smith, brings back one of the most experienced groups at the power-conference level.

The Tigers are far from the only team to benefit from the offseason, as 17 of the 33 SEC players to declare for the draft decided to return to school. Tennessee and LSU kept players such as Yves Pons and Ja’Vonte Smart, respectively, which combined with those programs’ strong recruiting classes makes them look like league favorites.

Missouri appears to be a sleeper choice to ascend the SEC standings, with a wealth of experience and a deep rotation of players.

Arkansas and Alabama had better-than-expected results from the NBA Draft window, with Isaiah Joe and John Petty coming back to Fayetteville and Tuscaloosa, respectively. Yet there were still changes on the rosters in place around them.

Other teams weren’t facing the same uncertainty when it came to draft decisions.

Mississippi (no players declared), Texas A&M (no players declared), Florida (knew Kerry Blackshear was leaving after one season), Georgia (knew Anthony Edwards was leaving after one season) and South Carolina (A.J. Lawson was the Gamecocks’ lone player in the draft process and he returned) all fall into this category.

Four SEC teams lost traction from the NBA Draft process and the offseason overall.

The easiest case to explain is Auburn, which will have its first-ever lottery pick in Isaac Okoro stay in the NBA pool. Auburn also lost a talented senior class that represented the core of its 2019 Final Four team.

Being in a “revamping” spot is par for the course for John Calipari-coached Kentucky teams. Five Wildcats who chipped in significant minutes entered and have stayed in the draft. That’s to go along with the few others who graduated or transferred because of lack of playing time, including Khalil Whitney and Johnny Juzang.

However, Kentucky brings to Lexington the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, with six four- or five-star recruits, including St. Louis native Cam’Ron Fletcher.

Vanderbilt was at the bottom of the league last season, and after losing both Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith to the draft, coach Jerry Stackhouse’s second season in Nashville could be troublesome.

The team hit hardest by the NBA draft process was Mississippi State, which was a bubble team at the end of the 2019-20 season. The Bulldogs had five players test the draft waters, and perhaps the most talented trio of the bunch all left Starkville in Reggie Perry, Nick Weatherspoon and Robert Woodard II.

Returning to Mizzou

Missouri returns players who make up 87.7% of the team’s minutes played last season.

In coach Cuonzo Martin’s other three seasons at the helm of Missouri, MU had 63.9% of minutes return for 2019-20, 39.2% entering 2018-19, and in Martin’s first season, the only campaign he’s led the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament while in Columbia thus far, he started with 67.5% of the previous year’s minutes played returning to the team.

The return of Pinson, Tilmon and Smith to Missouri brings back perhaps its best frontcourt (Pinson) and backcourt (Tilmon) players alongside arguably its most improved player (Smith) from last year.

Pinson played in all 31 games as a sophomore with 11 starts, averaging 11.1 points per game while shooting 40% from the field.

The Chicago native proved to be the Tigers’ most dynamic player down the stretch of the season, scoring 18.9 points per game over the final nine contests, including four 20-point games. Pinson scored in double digits 14 times, with nine of those coming in SEC play.

Smith enters his fifth season at MU as a redshirt senior coming off his most productive campaign in Columbia.

The 6-foot-10 forward set career-high season totals with 153 points, 146 rebounds and 20 assists last winter. He stretched the floor with 20 3-pointers and shot 85.4% from the free-throw line.

“Mitch is one of those guys, he might leave the game with seven points, but there was a big steal, a big charge, a big block, a big 3. There are so many ways to impact the game,” Martin said. “And for us as a staff, the biggest key with Mitch is to keep his confidence at a high level, and it’s not as if he walks with his head down, but just to maintain his level of confidence.

“Because when his confidence is high, he brings so much to the table.”

Tilmon has 81 career games under his belt as he enters his final season at MU.

The gifted 6-foot-10 center has averaged 8.9 points and 4.9 rebounds over his career, shooting 56% from the field, which is tied for fourth all-time in program history. Tilmon has 79 career blocked shots after swatting 21 shots as a junior.

Last season, he was hampered by a foot injury but averaged 8.2 points per game while shooting 58.9% from the field in 17 games.

Missouri also returns experienced players such as Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Kobe Brown, Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson to Columbia next season.