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Gordo: New-look Mizzou tries to keep pace as SEC basketball soars

Gordo: New-look Mizzou tries to keep pace as SEC basketball soars

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Cuonzo Martin hit the factory reset button on the Missouri basketball program ahead of another challenging Southeastern Conference campaign.

He led the Tigers to their second NCAA Tournament in four years last season, but he suffered another first-round loss. Last season’s baffling fade left all involved frustrated and led to wholesale roster change.

Now that Martin has worked with his nine newcomers for two weeks, he loves the potential he sees.

“You go back to the drawing board,” he said. “When COVID first hit, you get a chance to go back and look over some things, evaluate yourself, evaluate your team. I think it’s the same thing.”

Martin remains committed to tight defense, but he hopes to complete Missouri’s offensive transformation. That should help the Tigers attract players, keep up with SEC rivals and stir their slumbering fan base.

“You have some guys, probably four or five guys that are really good off the dribble, making plays,” Martin said during a media scrum Thursday. “You have a level of toughness. You have some length, some size, some physical play, guys that can make shots.”

Coach Nate Oats got quick results at Alabama with a pro-style attack and sourpuss Eric Musselman has done wonders at Arkansas.

So the SEC is better than ever in basketball. Kentucky will regain its swagger after John Calipari overhauled his staff and roster. Auburn will rise again too, with Bruce Pearl back to doing business as usual.

Perhaps the NCAA will crack down on Louisiana State at some point in this century, but in the meantime Will Wade will keep recruiting hard.

Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi State figure to be in the chase, too, so expect Missouri to earn also-ran projections again this year.

But change should be good for the Tigers. Now it’s Boogie Coleman’s turn to lead the offense.

He became a dynamic performer at Ball State, breaking down defenses off the dribble to create shots for himself and opportunities for his teammates. Martin believes he can excel against tougher competition, as Kassius Robertson did after making the leap from Canisius.

Freshman Anton Brookshire has the skill set and the leadership profile to run the point, too, but he faces a learning curve. Fortunately Green Bay transfer Amari Davis should be ready to help at both guard spots.

Davis is a rare modern guard with an effective mid-range game, which is meaningful for a team moving toward more pace-and-space play.

Kansas State transfer DaJuan Gordon can attack the basket and finish at the rim, unlike most of last year’s Tigers. But he missed 65 of 83 shots from 3-point range last season, so he must fix that.

The same goes for junior forward Kobe Brown, who hit just 25% of his 3-point tries last season.

This will be a familiar theme for the Tigers as they try to set up the drives and cuts Martin envisions with his offense spreading the floor.

Coleman shot 42.5% from 3-point range last season at Ball State, so that’s a starting point. Senior Javon Pickett shot 36% and Massachusetts transfer Ronnie DeGray III shot 37%, but both had small sample sizes.

Can Brookshire score consistently from the top of the key? How well will 6-foot-7 Sean Durugordon’s shoot off the wing after enrolling early and practicing against the Mizzou veterans for a semester?

Both are making shots in practice.

Can freshmen big men Yaya Keita (6-8, 240 pounds) and Trevon Brazile (6-9, 215) shoot from outside? Both are advertised as big men who can guard on the perimeter at one end and operate out high at the other. They, too, are making shots in practice.

But because Keita sat out his final high school season after knee surgery and Brazile still is filling out his frame, the Tigers could use another player like them.

Sophomore center Jordan Wilmore — all 7-3 and 310 pounds of him — appears to be a poor fit for this scheme. Perhaps Mount Wilmore can help if the Tigers run into a super-sized opposing center, but otherwise he seems likely to get lost in the transition.

The Tigers have one scholarship to give and Martin still is shopping for help. He covets players who are strong enough to guard the post and quick enough to defend against the drive.

At 6-6, DeGray could be that hybrid player. Kaleb Brown, Kobe’s younger brother, could also fill that role at 6-6 — if can transition from high school shape (265 pounds!) into SEC condition.

The super-early team returns sound good. Mizzou players are talking up their commitment and chemistry.

The newcomers have a collective chip on their shoulder after failing to attract high-major recruiting offers or, in Gordon’s case, suffering a tough 2020-21 season.

“We all have something to prove; that we can compete at this level,” Gordon told reporters. “Nobody on this team was top in the country.”

Missouri tried that recruiting path while landing the Porter Family Package to launch Martin’s regime.

Now, heading into Year 5, Martin might have found his long-range formula by securing hungry transfers from the mid-major ranks and getting them up to high speed.

Expanding the College Football Playoff has always made sense, but in this episode of Eye On The Tigers, Dave Matter and Ben Frederickson explain how a 12-team setup could potentially create a better and longer-lasting fit between Eli Drinkwitz and Mizzou.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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