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Why Mizzou hoops coach Cuonzo Martin exudes confidence in his fresh-faced Tigers roster

·5 min read

Strolling into Mizzou Arena’s main concourse Thursday afternoon brought an unfamiliar sight.

This was true in terms both figurative — the first in-person media availability with MU student-athletes since the pandemic began — and literal: Of the six Missouri men’s basketball players who sat in chairs for interviews, four have never played a game for the Tigers.

A team spokesperson even handed out rosters with pictures of each player on them to prevent confusion as to who was who.

If it seemed like a clean slate, it was for these new faces, too.

“It’s like being a freshman,” said redshirt junior guard Jarron Coleman, a transfer from Ball State. “Outside of basketball, everywhere here is like being a freshman. But when I’m in the gym, I feel like I’m an upperclassman.”

As summer workouts begin, coach Cuonzo Martin will need those new faces to play like upperclassmen, because most of the upperclassmen from last season are gone.

Just three players return from the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament team from a year ago, and only two (senior Javon Pickett, junior Kobe Brown) started games in 2020-21. All-SEC players Dru Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon — along with depth forward Mitchell Smith — have graduated, and six other 2020-21 Tigers entered the transfer portal, most notably Xavier Pinson (to LSU) and Mark Smith (to Kansas State).

So Martin hit the portal himself for new players, and along with five incoming freshmen has a team that is as unfamiliar as any he’s had in his time in Columbia.

But in the little time he’s seen this new group together, Martin likes what he sees.

“These guys are about business right now,” Martin said. “They want to be good. They spent a lot of time together and have been magnets to each other right away. ... It’s one thing for a guy to come in and put work in on his own, but to gather a teammate (or) two or three guys to do it with you, that’s special. They’ve put the time into it right now — we just hope that’s consistent.”

Pickett, Brown and the rarely featured Jordan Wilmore comprise the trio with previous experience under Martin, so they’re helping the newcomers acclimate to the program.

And there sure are plenty of newcomers.

From the portal, there’s Coleman, the 2019-20 Mid-American Conference Rookie of the Year who shot 42.5% from three-point range last year (Missouri shot 32.5% as a team). Also new are junior combo guards Amari Davis (17.2 points per game at Green Bay) and DaJuan Gordon (9.1 at Kansas State). Wing depth comes in the person of sophomore Ronnie DeGray III (8.7 points, 4.6 rebounds at UMass).

On the recruiting trail, Missouri snagged a couple of prep teammates, in guard Anton Brookshire and forward Trevon Brazile, who won a state title together at Springfield Kickapoo earlier this year.

Bouncy 6-foot-7 forward Sean Durugordon enrolled early in January and has practiced with the team since, while 6-9 big man Yaya Keita, who sat out his senior year at St. Louis De Smet with a knee injury, earned props from Martin for his summer shooting stroke. And Brown’s brother, Kaleb, is also on the team, already burlier than his sibling at 265 pounds to Kobe’s 255.

Pickett, with the most Mizzou experience of anyone on the roster now, has became the de facto summer leader. He said he’s seeking to ease in the newcomers by imitating the example set by past teammates.

“With Dru, just staying poised, I really got that from him,” Pickett said. “Throughout my three years with him, seeing how poised he was, never really letting anything get over his head, he always did a good job staying calm and bringing everybody together. So that’s really what I’m trying to do, just making sure that I keep good energy.”

The NCAA allowed college programs to resume regular recruiting activities June 1, marking the end of a year-plus in which Martin and his staff couldn’t recruit in person. That meant no official visits, no attending recruits’ games and handling all communication remotely — a tough task, but something that wasn’t limited to just Missouri.

Seeing players live with his own eyes rather than through film makes an immense difference, especially at the collegiate level, Martin said. There are certain things he looks for when evaluating how a player fits, or might fit, his system, and it’s a meticulous process.

“The obvious part for me is, is he a good guy?” Martin said. “Do you like being around him? Does he have a work ethic? You saw Kassius (Robertson), Dru Smith, those guys had a work ethic. And then with the guys that are coming in now ... if those guys are able to make individual plays, they can make a shot and I think they have good size, I think all of those things are very helpful.”

The pieces of the puzzle formed by Missouri’s 2021-22 roster are almost set now, but there’s still work to be done. Martin expects some walk-ons to arrive later — a luxury he didn’t have last year — and he and his staff have one more scholarship to fill.

There’s no indication that Martin is looking to nab a specific position or type of player for that final slot before the season starts.

But he’s got plans up his sleeve.

“We’re still working on it,” Martin said. “We’re not done yet.”

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