COLUMBIA — The Missouri's men's basketball team will have its most experienced group in recent memory for the 2020-21 season, and possibly the most experienced team Cuonzo Martin has ever coached, if the NCAA basketball season is played this year.
The Tigers' roster consists of 11 players who are juniors, redshirt juniors, seniors, redshirt seniors or graduate students, and Parker Braun is a redshirt sophomore.
With the graduation of Reed Nikko and the transfers of Tray Jackson, Mario McKinney Jr. and Axel Okongo, Missouri still returns 5,481-of-6,250 (87.7 percent) minutes played last season, and 88.1 percent of its scoring output.
The decisions of Xavier Pinson, Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. and Mitchell Smith to withdraw from the NBA Draft process gives the Tigers a complete return of last season's major contributors.
"I think so," Martin said Friday when asked if this was the most experienced roster he'd coached. "Maybe the team at Tennessee, we had a team that went to the Sweet 16 (in 2014) and I felt like if Jeronne Maymon would have been healthy, who knows, because he was a guy that could do a lot of things for us on both sides of the ball.
"I think we have the experience. I think where we have to grow, more than anything, is the total commitment to sacrifice. And I think sacrifice nowadays is harder than it was then, because when you're talking one-and-done, the thought is to be an NBA player, and all those things. That is fine, so that has to increase your work ethic, your desire and all those things, but more than anything it has to increase your sacrifice levels and your commitment to a team."
Martin said the example set by Kentucky under John Calipari shows you don't have to play 30 minutes a game in order to get drafted, you just have to be effective in the time you're on the court.
"I think with our personnel, I'm not sure we'll have guys play 30 minutes a night," he said.
Last season, Dru Smith was the Tigers' only player to average more than 30 minutes per game, at almost 33, and he likely would have played more if not for a brief bout of foul trouble in the middle of Southeastern Conference play. Javon Pickett averaged 27 minutes per game, and Mark Smith, who averaged 26.8, would have been closer to 30 minutes per night because of his defense and 3-point shooting if not for an injury 20 games into the season. He played more than 20 minutes just once after returning from a lower back injury.
Experience will also be a boon as teams try to begin preparing for the upcoming season, as every team around the country had its season end before the NCAA Tournament in March and saw less than normal activity this summer.
"I think it's very important, because I think we have the experience, but I've felt like we were as good as any of the previous two years, outside of key injuries," Martin said. "And I don't want harp on injuries, but I think the experience is there, and the desire to be great, as a whole. Those are things that are easy to talk about, and like I say to our guys all the time, you never know until adversity hits. That's when you'll grow. You'll grow or you crumble."
Missouri's offense was smoother in the second half of the season while Tilmon was injured, when the primary initiation play was a high ball screen for Pinson or Dru Smith to get them moving to the rim off the dribble and looking to kick if help came, but the defense also got worse with Tilmon's shot-blocking and rebounding on the bench.
Martin has continued to encourage Tilmon to play freer and "filled with joy" on defense, not just playing to avoid a foul, and if the Tigers can find a happy middle ground with Tilmon setting (legal) screens, there is room for improvement, particularly with another strong passer on the court in Hawaii transfer Drew Buggs.
"For me the most important things are team success," Martin said. "Of course there are individuals, and you want them to get what they need to get out of this as well, but in order for our team to be successful, Jeremiah needs to be an elite rebounder, whether that's five rebounds a game or 10 rebounds. It's his approach to rebounding, improving his ability to make plays at the rim, either facing up or at the basket, but also being strong with the basketball, not losing the ball, minimizing his turnovers. I think with him playing around 20-plus minutes a game, very hard, I think he'll be an NBA prospect when that happens."
The main stumbling block for Missouri is the same circumstances leading Tilmon, Pinson and Smith to return have also influenced other NBA prospects to return to their respective teams. Arkansas' Mason Jones declared for the draft but Isaiah Joe, who burned the Tigers for 24 points on 12 shots in their Feb. 22 game in Fayetteville, will return. So will Illinois' 7-foot big man Kofi Cockburn and electric guard Ayo Dosunmu, the latter of whom scored 21 of the Illini's 56 points in December's Braggin' Rights win for Missouri in St. Louis.
And while Kansas will likely lose Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson to the draft, Mitch Lightfoot, Ochai Agbaji and the rest of that 2019-20 team favored to win a title will return, including Braun's younger brother, Christian, when the Tigers face the Jayhawks on Dec. 12 in Kansas City for the first time in nearly a decade.
As long as we have a season, that is.