SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $3 for 3 months

Five questions facing Mizzou basketball this season

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri's Jeremiah Tilmon is among three Tigers who have been exploring their stock in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Missouri men's basketball could be the sleeper team in the Southeastern Conference.

Coach Cuonzo Martin enters year No. 4 at the helm in Columbia, and every player on the roster but senior Mitchell Smith is one he helped bring to Mizzou Arena. 

Here are five questions Missouri will face this season:

1. Who will be the Tigers' best fit at point guard?

This is a good problem for Missouri to have.

There are four players on the roster who served as a primary point guard during last college basketball season in some capacity.

The role changed between Xavier Pinson, Dru Smith and sometimes Mark Smith in Columbia, while graduate transfer Drew Buggs ran the show at Hawaii. Buggs is the most interesting option, as unlike all three returners listed above, he's primarily known as a distributor and his ability to spread an offense may be his most elite trait. 

Both of the Smiths and Pinson are shoot-first players, rarely conducive for long-standing success from a point guard in the college game. It works much better in the NBA with a shorter shot clock and eight more minutes per game.

Buggs' ability to dish the ball could be one key to unlocking Missouri's offense.

Hawaii guard Drew Buggs (1) gets around UTEP guard Souley Boum (0) during a game Dec. 22, 2019, in Honolulu. Buggs has since transferred to Missouri.

2. Does returning experience mean more than ever? 

The Tigers return 88% of minutes played from last season and 82% of their scoring. Amid the uncertainties of an ongoing pandemic, those factors could loom large.

No team in the SEC matches Missouri's level of retention.

(As a polar opposite, Kentucky is nearly starting from scratch, though the Wildcats' riches are far from running dry).

With programs spending limited time together in the offseason, previous relationships would appear to give Missouri an advantage over teams adjusting on the fly to a new coach or even just inevitable roster turnover.

This experience could shine through in big games. Missouri is scheduled to host ranked Illinois for Braggin' Rights on Dec. 12. While the Fighting Illini are the favorites to win the Big Ten Conference, they haven't been the true road team in the usual rivalry rumble in St. Louis since 1978. And this year's edition takes place where MU is most comfortable.

3. How does Tilmon fare with fouls? 

It's simply a matter of when – not if – Missouri senior center Jeremiah Tilmon's biggest on-court stigma becomes a familiar topic of conversation again. 

Tilmon is a pest to play against and one of the most physically gifted big men in the conference. But he's spent considerable time over the past three seasons on the bench during critical stretches of games because of foul trouble. 

His sophomore season was worse than last year for personal fouls, but spurts of the hacking and whacking of the East St. Louis native's past still showed up.

Where does Martin turn if Tilmon can't be on the floor for game-changing moments? Does he rely on Parker Braun or Mitchell Smith, who are both traditionally power forwards instead of centers?

Hopes could also fall on true 7-foot-3 freshman Jordan Wilmore to take that load.

The best way to avoid a mismatch would be less unforced fouls committed by Tilmon — a game within the game you can be sure he will be focusing on.

Missouri forward Mitchell Smith, left, and guards Mark Smith, back, and Javon Pickett, right, trap against Mississippi guard Breein Tyree during a game March 4 at The Pavilion at Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss.

4. Will the Tigers play with a sense of urgency?

There likely will be a mass exodus from Columbia after this season, with the final traditional years of eligibility coming for many Missouri standouts. 

Pending an additional year because of the special NCAA rule to allow winter-sport athletes no penalty for time played this season, this is the final season with the Tigers for all three Smiths, Buggs and Tilmon. 

There's also the possibility of Pinson leaving school early for the NBA Draft.

The core of this team will look very different come 2021-22. Will the changes on the horizon inspire a special season from the current core? With expectations of playing in March, will the Tigers handle that pressure in a healthy way? 

This could be the final shot for several Missouri players to get back to the NCAA Tournament or reach The Big Dance for the first time.

Missouri's Xavier Pinson (1) dunks the ball during a game against Mississippi on Feb. 18 at Mizzou Arena.

5. Pinson or Dru Smith: Who is the primary backcourt scorer?

For the entirety of last season, it was the duo of Dru Smith and Pinson that represented Missouri's primary scoring from the backcourt. 

While Martin views offense as a team effort and puts more emphasis on defense, the Tigers have two versatile options for their backcourt motor. Smith is apt with pivots and jump shots, while Pinson's style is more aggressive in driving to the rim.

Both standouts can also get in rhythm from 3-point range. 

Pinson has more eyes on him entering the season because of how he finished last year. That could make an opportunity for Smith, even with being named as a preseason second-team all-conference player by both coaches and media, to fly relatively under the radar come January.