COLUMBIA — Missouri men's basketball head coach Cuonzo Martin met with media Wednesday morning, breaking down the program's offseason.
Martin said 7-footer Axel Okongo is not yet with the team, but expects him to be on campus by the end of this week. Okongo is currently in Montreal finishing academic work that he could not take at Missouri.
"We're trying to get a waiver to possibly get two years," Martin said of Okongo's eligibility status. "But that's more our compliance (office) and the NCAA working that out."
Okongo, who is originally from France, went to Northwest College, a small junior college in Wyoming, after a prep school stop in Quebec. A mutual acquaintance at the University of Wyoming bridged the gap between Martin's coaching staff and the one at Northwest College, and the unheralded Okongo took an unheralded visit to Missouri.
Okongo's unusual route also made it more difficult for the NCAA to understand his eligibility, and Martin did not know if redshirting was a possibility for Okongo.
"That I'm not sure about," Martin said. "Just because, when his visa started, when he went to Canada and then the States, stuff happened with his visa and now he went to the junior college. So that's what we're working on, is to try to get two years."
MARTIN IS ALSO re-evaluating his stance on the bench and bench minutes. There is a school of thought that prioritizes a team's best or most cohesive offensive and defensive unit and tries to play that group as much as possible, working a few spots down when dealing with foul trouble, injuries and the like.
It's one Martin was coached in, and one he subscribed to. In 2017-18, his first season at Missouri, just five players averaged 20 or more minutes per game: Kassius Robertson (36), Jordan Barnett (34.1), Jordan Geist (26.1), Kevin Puryear (25.3) and Jontay Porter (24.5).
Last season, that number was six: Geist (33.8), Mark Smith (28.4, in just 19 of a possible 32 games due to injury), Javon Pickett (26.1), Jeremiah Tilmon (24.2), Puryear (23.3) and Torrence Watson (22.8). This offseason, though, he's softened on the thought of playing the team's best player(s) 30-plus minutes per game.
"I think the biggest strength will be our numbers, and I think we have a chance if healthy to play nine, possibly 10 guys," Martin said. "I think that's very important, but I think that has a lot to do with the conditioning, understanding what it means to share, what it means to sacrifice. Because maybe one guy could possibly play 30 minutes, but if you play hard, and if you play as a team, I think it's hard to play 30 minutes at the level you want to play."
The Tigers have an abundance of scoring guards that all showed at least flashes last season. Smith, Watson and Xavier Pinson, who is also a flashy but undeniably talented passer, all shot 36 percent or better last season from 3-point range.
Add Dru Smith and Pickett, a pair of fundamentally sound defenders with offensive pop as well, plus whatever Mario McKinney Jr. can offer, and Martin can mix and match at guard to suit personnel and situation.
Martin has been very high on the offseason strength and skills work of his team, and barring a massive step backward or forward from any of the above names, it's hard to see a reason any of them will average 30 minutes a night.
CONVERSELY, IF MISSOURI can get 30 minutes a night out of Tilmon they'll take it. Martin rightfully noted, given the past two seasons, the team's key to success is making sure Tilmon can stay on the court this season. The Tigers are 4-4 when he plays 30-plus minutes, which highlights the issue: he's played that many minutes just eight times in his career, though seven of them came in his sophomore season, so there are some signs he's improving.
"It's hard for one guy to guard Jeremiah," Martin said. "He has to continue to improve his decision-making, in traffic, in tough situations, because they'll run guys at him. And then of course on the defensive side of it, having the energy, the passion, and the level of, not necessarily toughness, but not worrying about the game's officiated. And that's not an easy thing to do."
Martin said Tilmon had a period of three weeks this summer where he was "up and down" because of a back injury, but said he was fine now. Mark Smith is also out of the walking boot he wore during the end of last season.
Tilmon also missed three weeks with a back injury this summer, but is healthy now.