COLUMBIA — The NCAA gave Division I men's basketball the go-ahead to start its season this fall as early as Nov. 25, about 20 days later than normal.
Missouri had its first day of practice Wednesday, and though the schedule isn't set yet, whenever it is, the Tigers will be ready. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin will have a team with depth and experience the likes of which he hasn't yet had in Columbia as he begins his fourth year at the helm of the program.
"I like our talent and I like our experience so far," Martin said Wednesday on Zoom. "I think guys have worked hard, even through COVID, I think the guys had good summers, even the ones that were at home, just working out training. And I like where we are right now as a team. Experience helps, especially if you learn from your past mistakes and that sort of thing and I think we've grown as a team, but first day was a good day."
The team's first rivalry game return against Kansas in Kansas City got pushed back a year to give fans a chance to fully attend the neutral-site game, and Missouri is still waiting for Utah to return a home-and-home series, the first leg played in Salt Lake City in 2017, which will not happen this year.
Southeastern Conference play, an 18-game schedule, is slated to begin Dec. 29, and Missouri is still trying to nail down the rest of its non-conference schedule, including details of a tournament in Orlando to open its season. Martin is hopeful those details will be finalized later this week.
Martin also said the team has been affected by coronavirus since the start of the outbreak, but everybody was fully healthy for the start of practice Wednesday.
The coronavirus pandemic ended Missouri's season in mid-March in Nashville before the Tigers got a chance to lace up in the SEC Tournament. The intervening seven months were a mix of organized team activities in Columbia and individual workouts at home with team meetings on Zoom to discuss everything that happened in the summer.
Missouri began welcoming in two transfers — Drew Buggs (Hawaii) and Ed Chang (Salt Lake Community College) — as well as 7-foot-3 freshman Jordan Wilmore, about the same time as it became clear the Tigers would also welcome back Xavier Pinson, Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. and Mitchell Smith, all three of whom got feedback from NBA Draft evaluators but withdrew their names from consideration.
"Since we had some time off, I feel like my mind has gotten a lot stronger," Tilmon said Wednesday. "That's been the biggest thing for me, just staying focused and staying disciplined off the court, that's been a big thing for me, and it's leading over to the floor and it's really showing."
The added bit of time off also helped Tilmon and Mark Smith fully heal from nagging injuries that had kept them off the court in spells during each of the last two seasons. Tilmon is far and away Missouri's best rebounder and shot-blocker when healthy, and has been working hard on conditioning so he can run the floor more, and even being an option for 3-pointers when trailing a fast-break.
Smith is a steady presence with the ball in his hand and a sharp-shooter from range coming off screens. He dealt with back and ankle issues last year but is feeling fine now.
"I kind of was lucky enough, I kind of had a workout facility at home I could use," Smith said, "so I was basically getting in contact with (strength coach Nicodemus Christopher), and I asked coach Martin things that I should work on this offseason. So I had a gym and a weight room, where I could work the whole summer so I really didn't miss anything and I got a lot of therapy, back injury and stuff, so my offseason was pretty good."
The Tigers return so much production from last year's team: Reed Nikko's graduation was the only major departure, and he averaged 4.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 15.7 minutes per game. Missouri went 15-16 and 7-11 in SEC play, but 12-4 at home and 2-10 on the road. With the unknown factor of reduced or maybe no crowds at games this winter, that experience could be very handy.
A winning streak late in the season coincided with Pinson's emergence as the dynamo at the center of Missouri's offense, and with another ball handler in Buggs, Hawaii's all-time assists leader, the team is looking to roll over the end of last year into the start of this year.
"I feel like I'm ready right now," Pinson said. "I put the work in to be here, to be ready now, to be ready a week from now, to be ready — I'm just ready. I feel like I'm ready now, so I don't have to deal with getting hot later in the conference, I just want to be consistent and even-keel the whole season."