By Aaron Moser
“They seem so hungry,” junior forward Jermiah Tilmon said about the attitude of the true-freshman trio of Kobe Brown, Tray Jackson and Mario Mckinney Jr. at Tuesday’s MU Men’s Basketball media availability.
“They got a chip on their shoulder.”
The Tigers will certainly need a bit of grit, and possibly some earplugs, in order to not hear the dim prospects for a team that finished 5-13 in the SEC last season. Many sources have pinned MU at the bottom of the conference in their early predictions.
“The people who do the rankings are not in the gym with us everyday, so they don’t see our progress,” sophomore guard Xavier Pinson said. “Being the underdog is always the best thing to be, no one will see us coming.”
A breath of new talent, including Evansville transfer Dru Smith, has brought the Tigers renewed energy and depth after injuries seemed to derail last season.
“He was torching us while he was on scout team for a full season,” senior forward Reed Nikko said. “We all know what Dru can do and we’re all excited about it.”
The 6-foot-3, 203 pound guard averaged 13.7 points and 4.6 assists in his sophomore season at Evansville. He had to sit out the 2018-2019 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin raved about Smith’s intelligence and ability to contribute to the team in a variety of ways, not just scoring. He even compared him to the way Jontay Porter could score, pass, rebound and defend multiple positions.
“He’s an experienced guy. He was well coached in high school as well as in college,” Martin said. “I expect him to bring a lot to the table.”
One of the ways the Tigers will use Smith’s abilities is with his ball handling. The Tigers turned the ball over on 21% of their possessions last season, which ranked 318th nationally.
Martin said on Tuesday that Smith and Pinson, who as a freshman had the highest turnover rate on the team, have taken on the ball handling duties, and he plans to play them at the same time in certain situations. With senior point guard Jordan Geist graduating last season, both will be asked to take over some of the leadership roles that Geist maintained.
Many believe that if the Tigers want to reach their full potential this season, Jeremiah Tilmon has to have continued improvement in staying on the floor and avoiding foul trouble. He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes last season, compared to 7.5 per 40 as a freshman.
Martin said that he does not think that it is all about the fouls, but rather the way that Tilmon reacts to things he feels does not go his way, such as a missing a layup. After averaging 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds last year, Martin wants to see a heightened focus from Tilmon when the lights come on.
Tiger fans should expect a lot of four guard lineups with Martin being able to play both Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown on the perimeter. Kobe Brown, who is listed at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, has played all five positions at practice.
Freshman guard Mario Mckinney Jr. has also been put into the mix, and Martin praised his athleticism and “good understanding of the game.” Martin says he has a better than expected shooting touch, even if he does not take a lot from outside.
Martin believes that the three freshmen’s different abilities provide flexibility, which undoubtedly allows them to “have the ability to play from day one.” Martin even said that he has “the personnel to go nine, maybe 10 [deep].”
When asked about the Tigers’ non-conference schedule, Martin said he wishes there was one less road game for his young team, but he thinks the schedule brings ample early challenges. He specifically mentioned the rematch against Xavier in Cincinnati.
The Tigers will face-off against Butler on Nov. 25, and then will either play Oklahoma or Stanford as a part of the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, MO. Those nationally-televised games will provide several opportunities for the Tigers to open the eyes of some of their doubters.
Senior Reed Nikko said that he is most looking forward to getting another shot at Temple when they play in Philadelphia on Dec. 7. Nevertheless, he says the first game they have to focus on is Incarnate Word, which is who the Tigers open against at Mizzou Arena on Nov. 6.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org