COLUMBIA, MO. • Three times during his senior year at Whitfield School, Torrence Watson scored 50 points in a game. As expected, the baskets haven’t come as easily at the college level. Through Missouri’s first eight games, the freshman guard has scored 34 points — slightly more than he averaged per game as a high school senior, 31.2.
Nobody in Mizzou Arena was more relieved to see a few shots fall in Tuesday’s 20-point win than Watson, who set season-high figures for field goals (four) and points (12). He hadn’t scored more than three points in the five previous games and went scoreless in just two minutes in Sunday’s win over Central Florida.
But against Texas-Arlington on Tuesday, with a couple early corner 3-pointers Watson gave a glimpse of the high-scoring guard the Tigers recruited in St. Louis.
“It was good, man, because he’s feeling good now,” sophomore center Jeremiah Tilmon said. “He gets his head down sometimes, but we’re there for him all the time just making sure he’s staying up.”
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For Watson, the transition from high school to college has offered a few challenges. One, he’s coming off the bench as a role player who’s expected to spark the Tigers with perimeter scoring. In high school, he was Whitfield’s primary source of offense and rarely found himself on the bench.
Then there’s the other new change.
“I didn’t have to play much defense in high school,” he said, “so adjusting to Coach Cuonzo was hard at first.”
Playing defense isn’t negotiable with second-year coach Cuonzo Martin, even for a gifted scorer like Watson. While the Tigers (5-3) continue to build an offensive identity with five new regulars in the rotation, there’s even more emphasis on defense — if that’s possible under Martin.
As for Watson’s progress, Martin has always known the freshman will develop at his own pace, a reality that’s sometimes harder to accept in today’s game.
“I always talk to him, but it’s not necessarily (saying), ‘Keep your confidence,’” Martin said. “The tough part about it with the landscape and the one-and-dones (to the NBA) and the mentality, it’s like a guy can’t be a freshman and go through struggles. I know I went through them. I have sympathy from the standpoint that I went through it, but I don’t have sympathy because … it’s part of the growth.”
That’s why Watson’s early shooting slump didn’t rattle the head coach, who as a player at Purdue in the 1990s didn’t make a single 3-pointer as a freshman and sophomore but became a 47-percent shooter as a senior.
“That’ll make him a better basketball player when you go through something like that,” Martin said. “Those are often the best lessons. I really wasn’t concerned because he’s not a quitter. He’s a competitive player and wants to be good. I wasn’t concerned from that standpoint but you’d like to see the ball go in for him. When you start putting the time in that he’s putting in lately, it’ll go in.”
The Tigers have already become a strong 3-point shooting team without getting much help from Watson, but if he builds off Tuesday’s showing, Martin’s team could become more potent offensively than expected after forward Jontay Porter was lost for the year with a knee injury. The Tigers come into Friday’s 6 p.m. game against Oral Roberts (3-8) shooting 37.9 percent from 3-point range.
“Those are things we practice, and the way the game is played you want to be solid shooting the ball from the perimeter,” Martin said.
Mizzou could add a major reinforcement off the bench Friday if sophomore transfer K.J. Santos makes his season debut. The 6-8 forward has been recovering from a foot injury but was cleared medically to play in Tuesday’s game. Martin wanted him to have more practice time before seeing the court in a game. Once he joins the rotation, it’ll mark his first Division I game action since he played for Illinois-Chicago during the 2016-17 season.