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Without Martin, Mizzou opens SEC play against rebuilt, balanced Kentucky

Cuonzo Martin

Missouri head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin coaches from the sidelines on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, in the first half of the Braggin' Rights game against the University of Illinois at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Christian Gooden@post-dispatch.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Now that COVID-19 is disrupting a third straight college basketball season, coaches and players are conditioned to expect the unexpected. That’s how Missouri assistant Cornell Mann processed the news Monday morning when he learned Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin tested positive for the virus, thrusting Mann into the head coach’s role for the team’s conference opener.

“I think it’s fair to say that anytime in sports you can be surprised at any moment, any day. I think that can happen in general in sports, but you’re almost looking for it now,” Mann said Tuesday. “You’re almost looking for the next bad thing to happen or who’s not going to play or are we going to play this game? It does become a bit more of a juggling act on a daily basis.”

“Obviously, it’s tough for every team but tougher for teams when you don’t have your leader.”

That’s one of several challenges Mizzou (6-6) faces in Wednesday’s 6 p.m. tipoff at No. 18 Kentucky (9-2), the Southeastern Conference opener for both and for the Tigers the final test in what’s been a grueling December. Mizzou went 1-2 this month against high-major foes with losses to Kansas and Illinois by a combined 62 points, wrapped around a home victory over Utah. Now, after a brief break for the holidays, the Tigers head back on the road to face a suddenly potent Kentucky team that leads the SEC in scoring at 83.3 points per game.

It was the holiday break that prompted Mizzou’s medical staff to test the entire team for COVID once players and coaches gathered in Columbia. MU had not been testing fully vaccinated team members during the season, but with players and coaches scattered around the country over Christmas, just as the omicron variant spread rapidly, the team underwent tests on Sunday. Martin tested positive and has since been in isolation. Players and assistant coaches tested negative, the team confirmed. MU expects to have the full roster available Wednesday.

Last year, COVID pauses and disruptions left Mizzou’s SEC schedule scrambled from week to week. The Tigers weren’t able to make up postponed home games against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. On Tuesday, the SEC postponed its first league game, Wednesday’s Florida-Ole Miss game, because of COVID cases within the Gators’ program.

Martin, who has been fully vaccinated since early this year, could rejoin the Tigers for MU’s next game next Wednesday against Mississippi State — or possibly sooner if the SEC relaxes its isolation policy based on the CDC’s updated guidelines.

Either way, Mann will run the team Wednesday, alongside assistants Chris Hollender and Marco Harris-Stevens. Mann had already been assigned to handle the scouting report for Kentucky.

“It’s basketball,” Mann said. “Things do happen. I’ve been here with Coach Martin the whole time. Our whole staff has, so we understand exactly what Coach wants us to do. We understand how things are supposed to go. The players understand that as well. I think we’re as prepared as anybody would be for this type of situation.”

Now comes the hard part: playing Kentucky.

After a dreadful nine-win 2020-21 season, John Calipari has assembled a lineup of transfers, impact freshmen and returning pieces that should contend for another SEC championship. Mann’s staff is especially familiar with two of the imports: former West Virginia center Oscar Tshiebwe and former Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler. Tshiebwe scored 14 points and pulled down eight rebounds in a Big 12/SEC Challenge victory over the Tigers two years ago. Mizzou split two games against Georgia last year when Wheeler combined for 26 points and 19 assists.

The Tigers have gone to a point guard by committee approach lately, starting freshman Anton Brookshire with transfers Boogie Coleman and Amari Davis seeing time at the point off the bench. On Wednesday they’ll be tasked with defending one of the nation’s elite playmakers. Only St. Louis University’s Yuri Collins averages more assists per game than Wheeler’s 7.7.

“Earlier in the year watching film, I felt like he could make or break the team at times by trying to do too much because he did a lot for Georgia,” Mann said. “But I think right now he’s hit a bit of a stride where he’s accepted his role and finding a balance in terms of what he can get for himself and how to facilitate a little bit more. The last three games, he’s been able to do that. He’s a little bit better because he got some better guys with him.”

That includes Tshiebwe, a rugged rebounder and more polished post scorer since the last time Mizzou faced him. The Tigers have struggled to corral physical centers from Kansas (David McCormack) and Illinois (Kofi Cockburn) and in both games paid the price for collapsing in the paint and leaving shooters open on the perimeter. KU and Illinois sank a combined 26 3-pointers against Mizzou.

The Tigers have allowed opponents to shoot 38.7% from 3-point range, the highest percentage allowed among all teams in the six major conferences.

“We have to do a better job in this game in terms of guarding the 3-point line,” Mann said. “But we also have to do a good job of manning the five-man position right at the rim.”

If the Wildcats are vulnerable anywhere it could be against Mizzou’s physicality, Calipari said.

“They’re physically playing through bumps. It’s the kind of team that gives us trouble,” said Calipari, who spoke with Martin on Monday after he announced his positive test. “So it’s going to be a hard game for us. It’s another game that we learn, OK, when a team plays physical, plays really hard and doesn’t give you an inch, how do you play now? They collapse on defense, so it’s not gonna be easy just to throw it to Oscar. They collapse. You’re going to have to make some jump shots. The teams that gave Missouri trouble made jump shots.”

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