COLUMBIA, Mo. — With a rapid 48-hour turnaround between the season’s opening two games, the Missouri men’s basketball team knows it’s in good hands, the basketball specifically.
For all the good things Jordan Geist did for the Tigers last season when he played out of position at point guard, the arrival of transfer Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson’s offseason progression have revamped the backcourt, giving Cuonzo Martin two pass-first playmakers to quarterback the Tigers.
Smith and Pinson both had five assists in Wednesday’s season-opening romp against Incarnate Word, part of the Tigers’ 16-assist performance. That’s one short of last year’s season high.
Smith, the 6-foot-3 junior who joined the team last year from Evansville, rarely looked for his own shot in the 82-42 win, even though he was a 48-percent 3-point shooter two seasons ago in the Missouri Valley Conference. He didn’t take a single shot in 14 first-half minutes and made his one and only 3-pointer with five minutes left.
“Dru doesn’t mind facilitating, getting guys involved,” said Martin, whose Tigers (1-0) host Northern Kentucky (1-0) at 7 p.m. Friday. “He makes a conscious effort to get Jeremiah (Tilmon) the ball, get other guys shots, because he knows he can get a shot. … That’s the maturity of a basketball player. (He says), ‘I understand I can get this shot all night. But let me try to work a little harder to get somebody a better shot.’”
Maturity defines Pinson’s game, too. The sophomore from Chicago mixed dazzling passes with turnover bouts as a freshman, but in Wednesday’s win and last week’s exhibition, Pinson mixed steady ball-handling with savvy decision-making. He added 15 points Wednesday and ignited a first-half surge with assists on three straight possessions.
“I just let the game come to me,” Pinson said. “The flashy pass is just an instinct or a natural thing. I try to calm down and let the game come to me and whenever it happens it happens.”
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s opener, Pinson was the consistent answer to two questions asked of Missouri players and coaches: Who is the team’s most improved player? Who is the team’s emerging leader?
“This offseason was about being a better leader and becoming a better person,” Pinson said before the season. “Last year was a bit of a bumpy road for me. This year is about clearing the air and being as calm as I can be and being focused like I am now and just doing whatever I can to help this team.”
“He has great vision,” Martin said this fall. “He can pass the ball, but now the simplicity of some of those passes is connecting. And then when he has to have some flash on it, he makes a sound decision.”
If there’s one reason the Tigers shrug and scoff at the lowly outside projections for their team this season, it’s the changing of the guard in the backcourt. Just ask the big man on the other end of their passes into the post. Tilmon led the Tigers with 16 points in Wednesday’s win and was often the beneficiary of crisp passes into the paint.
“X has grown a lot, and Dru is pretty smart, one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen,” Tilmon said. “They’re feeding off each other. They sharpen each other every day in practice. They learn from each other. I just feel like that’ll help us. We respect them. We look to them. As long as they’re leading this team, we’ll be good.”