COLUMBIA, Mo. — With so much uncertainty swirling around the start of the college basketball season today, Missouri is prepared to start Year 4 of the Cuonzo Martin era with expectations unchanged by the pandemic.
Tonight's season opener against Oral Roberts starts at 6 p.m. and will be televised on the SEC Network Alternate channel. For fans in attendance (a maximum of 3,000), face coverings will be required at all times and seating will be done in groups of two or four. Mobile ticketing and cashless concessions will be used once doors open an hour before tip-off.
A veteran roster anchored by Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson and healthy Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. and Mark Smith has set the baseline for this season. The addition of graduate transfer point guard Drew Buggs, the sophomore seasons of Kobe Brown and Parker Braun, and a focus on more consistent 3-point shooting up and down the roster has the Tigers primed for a season they think will exceed preseason projections.
Tilmon, who tried to play through a foot injury sustained last December, played in six of Missouri's 18 SEC games last year and averaged six points per game in those contests, while a lower back injury kept Mark Smith out for almost the entire month of February.
"I feel like we've got the best team, this is the best locker room I've seen in my four years being here," Tilmon said Tuesday. "I feel like we all get along off the court, we can get on each other real hard during practice, and it ain't no bad blood between us. Everybody plays together, so (we all) know our roles on the court and knowing what to do, and not getting out of character."
With Buggs, the career assists leader at Hawaii, joining the team, Martin and the Tigers expect to play a little more up-tempo. The addition of a third ball-handler to accompany Dru Smith and Pinson, including the chance for all three to be on the court at once, means players like Tilmon have spent the offseason working on conditioning and running the floor.
The expectations and accountability, particularly concerning coronavirus, which can wipe 10-14 days and a handful of games off a team's schedule, has helped strengthen the locker room.
"I think for the guys here, maturity over time, the guys you have in your locker room," Martin said of the process. "The accountability: What are you willing to allow? What are you willing to accept? What do you demand in the locker room? Because it's always easy for coaches to do certain things, but if that's not translated from the coaching staff into the locker room, then it's just a locker room."
Missouri was picked toward the back of the Southeastern Conference's preseason polls as compiled by both the media and the league's coaches, after finishing 11th last season with a 7-11 conference mark. Dru Smith was a preseason All-SEC second-team selection in both polls, the only Missouri player represented.
"We're just coming out ready to play hard and show how good of a team we have this year," Mark Smith said. "The goals that we have are being SEC champions, something that's never (been) done here before, so that's the main goal for our team, just playing hard and sticking together."
Around the SEC, Mississippi and Tennessee have already paused men's basketball activities due to positive coronavirus tests, and Vols coach Rick Barnes was among those who tested positive. Martin confirmed Tuesday everyone within Missouri's program had tested negative in the lead-up to tonight's tipoff.
"I think our guys are doing a good job of handling it, and it is what it is," Martin said. "I mean, you can only control what you can control. So they've done a good job with that, they've done a good job of maintaining focus. They also understand what we do, we play basketball, but dealing with the COVID virus is a part of life, so we have to deal with that as well. And just taking the necessary precautions every day. Just doing the right things, being aware of who you're around, respecting not only your teammates and the staff, but also your roommates. We talk about those things quite a bit because they'll make decisions, we're just hopeful that they make sound decisions when they're not in our presence."
Oral Roberts went 17-14 last season, 9-7 in the Summit League, and graduated its top two scorers from last year's team. Sophomore guard Max Abmas started all 31 games as a freshman and averaged 14.5 points per game while shooting 36.6 percent from 3-point range, and redshirt junior forward Kevin Obanor averaged 12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and nearly a block per game in 28 starts last season.
As a team, the Golden Eagles averaged 80 points per game and allowed 73 points per game last year while taking good care of the ball, averaging 10 turnovers per game.
The Tigers return nearly everyone from last year's squad that went 15-16 but shot 29.7 percent from 3-point range, the worst mark in program history since the 3-point line was introduced in 1986-87, surpassing the mark of 30.4 percent set in Kim Anderson's last season in charge.
"We practice 3-point shooting a lot, especially the extra work guards are getting right now," said Mark Smith, who is a career 40.5 percent 3-point shooter at Missouri after shooting 23 percent from deep his freshman year at Illinois. "I feel like right now everybody's shooting the ball really well, so that's great, going into the game starting tomorrow."