COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri men's basketball team will honor five seniors today, capping off an impressive season in which the Tigers (15-7, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) rose to as high as No. 10 in the national polls, beat three top-10 teams and will return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.
All of it has been done with a reduced number of fans at Mizzou Arena due to the coronavirus pandemic, and today's Senior Day against LSU (15-8, 10-6), which tips at 2 p.m. on SEC Network, is no different.
LSU is a high-scoring team, led by freshman Cam Thomas' 22.8 points per game, the best scoring mark in the SEC. Thomas does a healthy chunk of his scoring at the foul line, averaging 7.5 free throw attempts per game and shooting 87.9 percent from the line, which also leads the league.
Trendon Watford and Ja'Vonte Smart (16 ppg each) and Darius Days (11.7 ppg) round out the team's double-figure scorers. Smart is a 44.6 percent 3-point shooter, second in the league, and Days is 39 percent from beyond the arc.
"You have to make them work for baskets," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday. "They find a way, find a way to put the ball in the basket: if I miss a shot, get to the free throw line, and get it in transition, offensive rebounds, they'll find ways. If they catch it in comfort, getting the ball in transition, the ball's moving and flowing the way they want to do, it'll be 90 points."
Martin was amped after his team's road win against Florida and asserted he believed the Tigers had played their way into the tournament field no matter what happens today or in next week's SEC tournament in Nashville. He also expressed some regret a packed house couldn't send this senior class off the way it deserves.
Jeremiah Tilmon Jr., who came to Missouri as part of Martin's lauded first class in 2017-18, has grown in so many ways while in Columbia, learning to control his emotions and fouls on the court while becoming a father and dealing with the pain of losing his grandmother during the season off the court.
"She was the world to me," Tilmon said Friday. "I'm just letting her light shine through me. She always wanted to see me do great regardless of how bad I played, anything like that, she always wanted to see me do good and was always proud. I'm continuing to let her live through me."
Dru Smith, who transferred from Evansville, has consistently been one of the SEC's best defenders, a steady on-ball presence for Missouri and someone with the ability to hit a game-winning shot, like he did against Florida with a reverse layup off the backboard past three defenders. Martin said Smith will likely need surgery after the season on his right wrist/thumb, which has been taped up for the entirety of conference play.
He leads the SEC in steals per game (2.0), is fifth in assists (86, 3.9 per game) and 10th in 3-point percentage (38.5).
"I think it was a great decision for me," he said Friday. "I'm really glad that I decided to come here and I think that we have a very good team, and we're just looking to get things rolling here down the stretch."
Mark Smith has always been valued in Martin's program not just for his scoring but for his rebounding, defense and work ethic. Smith shot 24 percent from 3 as a freshman at Illinois before transferring, 45 percent as a sophomore, 37 percent as a junior and is 37-of-111 (33 percent) this season.
"It's been great, from the coaching staff, everything they've done for me. I got brothers in here for life," Smith said.
The Tigers will also honor redshirt senior Mitchell Smith, the last holdover from the Kim Anderson era, and Hawaii graduate transfer point guard Drew Buggs. Both have been consistent contributors as role players while making an impact in areas other than scoring.
All five seniors have said in the past two weeks, leading up to today, they haven't thought about or spoken with anyone on the coaching staff about leaving or staying: their focus has been on finishing out the season and making a deep run in March. But all of them spoke like Saturday would be their last game at Mizzou, and Martin spoke as if he doesn't expect any of them back.
"Hopefully these guys can either play in the NBA or become CEOs of their own companies or work for somebody, I mean that's the goal," Martin said. "Now if those guys sit there and say 'Coach, I want to do that,' then we would talk through it, not that I would tell any of 'em 'no,' but we would talk through why.
"And that would be my biggest question: why? The same question I would ask for my own sons if they were at that point, like why? What's the benefit of doing that? You have to tell me, it ain't just them coming back, you have to tell me that. It's four-plus years, it's time to live life. Now you come back, I want to know the reasons why: you're working toward getting your masters, then that's different. But just to come back to be a part of a college campus nice campus Oh no, we're not doing that."
Missouri has a five-man recruiting class coming in next year — New York guard/forward Sean Durugordon is already enrolled and on the bench — highlighted by three in-state players in Kickapoo guard Anton Brookshire and forward Trevon Brazile and De Smet forward/center Yaya Keita. Kobe Brown's younger brother Kaleb has also signed with the Tigers.
Martin's comments likely mean he and his staff will be active in the transfer portal in the coming months, as the team is set to graduate three starters and the first two players off its bench.