COLUMBIA — With plenty of new faces to welcome and high expectations, the Missouri men's basketball team began summer workouts this week with a lot of things to accomplish.
The Tigers had an up-and-down 2020-21 season, climbing as high as No. 10 in the AP Poll before losing seven of their final 10 games, including a 72-68 loss to Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. To boot, Missouri graduated or lost to transfer almost all of its regular contributors: Jeremiah Tilmon Jr., Dru Smith, Mitchell Smith, Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, Torrence Watson, Drew Buggs and Parker Braun.
Kobe Brown, Javon Pickett and Jordan Wilmore are the only players who suited up last season to return. So Cuonzo Martin set out to improve the squad, bringing in a class of five freshmen: point guard Anton Brookshire, guard/forward Kaleb Brown, Kobe's younger brother, and forwards Sean Durugordon, who joined the team in January, Trevon Brazile and Yaya Keita.
The team also added transfers Amari Davis (Green Bay), Jarron "Boogie" Coleman (Ball State), Ronnie DeGray III (UMass) and DaJuan Gordon (Kansas State).
"These guys are about business right now, I think they want to be good," Martin said Thursday at Mizzou Arena. "They spent a lot of time together, and they've been magnets to each other right away, just how they communicate with each other, how they hang around each other, come over to the gym together."
Unless Wilmore, listed at 7-foot-2, establishes himself as a serious presence on offense and defense, this year's Missouri team will likely not have one player taking up a majority of the touches in and around the paint, as Tilmon did so successfully for the Tigers last year.
The newcomers all share a trait, something Missouri's staff sought out after the end of last season.
"You see the obvious athleticism, guys that can make shots, good size, especially on perimeter, wing size," Martin said.
Half of the team's roster is listed between 6-foot-6 and 6-9, and Martin anticipates players like DeGray, Durugordon, Brazile and Keita will give the Tigers plenty of opportunity to switch assignments on defense and create mismatches on offense.
Pickett is the team's only senior this year, and there are five upperclassmen on a roster of 12: Coleman, Kobe Brown, Gordon and Davis. Pickett has stepped up to lead, organizing a team dinner, and Brown and Coleman have also moved into leadership roles on the team during group workouts and open gyms.
"You gotta take it slow," Coleman said Thursday. "You gotta learn how people take leadership and what's the best way to lead them, and sometimes it's trial and error."
So far, things have been smooth.
"We actually fit together, like, it's pretty easy," Kobe Brown said. "I was surprised. We're all enjoying each other and we kind of clicked right away."
There's a chance the Tigers aren't done adding, yet, either. The 13th scholarship is currently open, and while Martin has expressed a desire to leave that spot unfilled if it won't be taken by a player who can contribute immediately, if he can find that player, Missouri will have a full roster.
"We've got a spot left," Martin confirmed Thursday. "I can say we're not done, but we're still working on it. We're not done yet."
Missouri's 2021-22 schedule has not been released, but two important dates have been set.
The Tigers will open the first game of a six-game series against arch-rival Kansas beginning Dec. 11, in Lawrence, with time and TV still up in the air. The series opener was scheduled to be played last season at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City but was scrapped due to the pandemic. The Tigers and Jayhawks will alternate home-and-home games through 2024, then play twice at the Sprint Center to close the series.
Missouri will also host Utah in the return game of a home-and-home that originally opened in 2017, Martin's first season with the program. The Utes will visit Mizzou Arena on Dec. 18, with time and TV to be determined.