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COLUMBIA, MO. • The smallest player on the court dived into a thicket of limbs, came up with the basketball — one of his eight rebounds in the game — and had the wherewithal to call a timeout. Missouri freshman guard Xavier Pinson’s reward for the timely play came in the form of thunderous boos from the Tennessee crowd of 17,000-plus. He glanced around Thompson-Boling Arena and allowed himself to enjoy the moment — and the noise.

The Tigers lost the game by 12 points, but it wasn’t a lost cause.

It’s been an eventful few months for two of Cuonzo Martin’s three freshman guards as their minutes have fluctuated from week to week — sometimes first half to second half — but Pinson and Torrence Watson seemed to settle into their roles Tuesday at Tennessee. Following the lead of freshman guard Javon Pickett, a starter in every game for Martin this season, Pinson and Watson are starting to give Mizzou productive and more consistent minutes in a backcourt that’s missing injured guard Mark Smith.

“They’re doing a really good job of being productive with their minutes when they’re out there and helping us on the defensive end and making shots on the offensive end,” Pickett said.

Watson, the St. Louis native who was the area’s leading high school scorer each of the last two years at Whitfield School, was Martin’s initial choice to replace Smith in the starting lineup two weeks ago against Louisiana State, but he stayed glued to the bench for the entire second half after playing just eight minutes the previous game at Arkansas. The guard has since averaged 26 minutes in MU’s last three games against Auburn, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

As always with Martin, defense has determined Watson’s minutes.

“He’s a good guy, and he wants to be successful, so he doesn’t complain about (playing time),” said Martin, whose Tigers (11-10, 2-7 Southeastern Conference) host Texas A&M (8-13, 1-8) at 5 p.m. Saturday. “I think out of those three (freshmen), he’s our better defender now. I wouldn’t have said that before. But he’s really improved in that area.”

At the start SEC play, Pinson’s disappearing minutes worried fans still shaken by last year’s sudden departure of freshman point guard Blake Harris, who bolted for North Carolina State when his minutes slipped midway through his debut season. Instead, Pinson has heeded Martin’s coaching, becoming a more reliable ball-handler and better defender in Smith’s absence. Pinson didn’t play in the second half Jan. 13 at South Carolina and never left the bench a week later at Texas A&M, but he’s averaged 22 minutes in the last five games and played a career-high 32 minutes Tuesday at Tennessee. The 6-2, 170-pound freshman finished with 10 points and pulled down eight rebounds without a single turnover.

“In X’s case it’s still growth on the defensive side with his effort and his approach,” Martin said. “He’s making strides. We talk about him giving resistance defensively. It’s one thing to get stronger, but there are also things you can control when you lack strength. I don’t think either one of those guys (Pinson or Watson) were ever afraid in games. That wasn’t the case. … They continue to get better.”

While some wondered how much faith Martin had in the freshmen just a few weeks ago, he paid them the ultimate compliment minutes after Tuesday’s loss to Tennessee’s veteran team.

“Xavier Pinson, Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett,” he said, “I’ll go to battle with all three of those guys.”

The Tigers begin the second half of conference play in 11th place in the 14-team SEC but still carry postseason hopes beyond next month’s SEC tournament. The NCAA Tournament figures to be a long shot, though Martin’s young team could still qualify for the 32-team NIT. The last five years, every at-large NIT team has won at least 17 regular-season games.

Hitting that 17-win benchmark won’t be easy, though the Tigers have a few manageable games coming up, starting with Saturday’s visit from the Aggies and Tuesday’s home game against Arkansas (14-8, 5-4). Mizzou has another three games against teams with losing SEC records.

Martin said he planned to talk to his players Friday about postseason goals but with such a young team he won’t get consumed with conversations about anything beyond the next matchup.

That won’t stop the freshmen from letting their minds wander.

“We’re really focused on this year and making sure we finish this year out as strong as possible and hopefully win all of our next games,” Watson said. “But we’re definitely looking forward to the future, knowing that we’re young guys and if we keep building and keep getting people to come to this program we’ll have a chance to win a championship someday.”

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Dave Matter is the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.