With some exceptions, Cuonzo Martin’s Missouri teams usually don’t blow teams away with sheer athleticism.
As Martin enters his fifth year in Columbia, it’s fairly well-known how his teams usually play: bruising basketball that relies heavily on defensive pressure and strong takes to the hoop. If the Tigers beat you, it’s probably because they managed to out-tough you.
But for even the most rigid of basketball styles, more athleticism doesn’t hurt. And Missouri’s incoming freshman class has plenty of it.
Take it from Martin himself.
“Obvious athleticism,” Martin said of his five-player recruiting class. “I think we have guys that can get to the rim and make plays and finish at the rim. That is tough to guard, and we have multiple guys who can do that.”
Summer workouts have tipped off in Columbia and the fresh-faced Tigers — only returning three players from last year’s NCAA Tournament team — have now had some time to get acclimated around each other and build chemistry.. Some digging online will yield clips of the freshman class, and there’s plenty of bounce on display.
Guard/forward Sean Durugordon, who enrolled at Missouri in January and has been practicing with the team since, often posts on social media videos of himself throwing down ridiculous dunks. In one Twitter clip from May, the right-handed Durugordon catches a lob to himself in mid-air and windmill-jams it home with his left hand while eye-level with the rim.
Then there’s Trevon Brazile, a 6-foot-9 forward who won a state title at Springfield Kickapoo with fellow freshman guard Anton Brookshire. A receiver of many Brookshire lobs at Kickapoo, Brazile, a lanky swingman — seen in a Twitter clip from January — pinned a Springfield Central players’ shot attempt against the backboard with one hand, seemingly floating in mid-air as he jumped.
Missouri could find that useful. One statistic it could improve immediately is its offensive block percentage (the percentage of shots the opponent blocks), which at 11.3% last year ranked 325th of 347 teams that played in Division I. Martin has some tactical ideas for how it can be utilized, too.
“One, you can switch five ways,” Martin said. “But then another thing, if there’s a traditional (opposing) big, you force him to defend you and you space out your play. ... All five of those guys are talented freshmen as they continue to grow and continue to get better, because you’re talking about probably the best league in America when you’re talking about athleticism, toughness, skill and physicality. This league brings it.”
Missouri the past few seasons hasn’t shown many examples of playing “position-less basketball.” Nor has it really had the personnel to do it. Sure, there was the brief example of now-Denver Nuggets star Michael Porter Jr., but the Tigers’ main contributors in the Martin era have been mostly locked to their positions. Last season, All-SEC guard Dru Smith couldn’t do All-SEC center Jeremiah Tilmon’s job, nor vice versa: Those two had defined roles, as did a lot of players on the roster.
This year’s freshman class likely changes things. Eight players, including four of the freshmen, hover between the 6-4 to 6-9 range, leaving much in the air about how Martin will utilize that flexibility. How Martin uses 6-9, 240-pound forward Yaya Keita early in the season might be key.
Keita, who missed his senior season at St. Louis De Smet with a knee injury, also has bonkers bounce: a short highlight clip on YouTube from prior to his junior season shows him swatting shots away and being a strong presence in the post, leaping ability that only became better as his prep career continued. But what can also be seen in the tape is a smooth shooting stroke, the likes of which Missouri hasn’t had in a big man since Jontay Porter shot 36.4% on three-pointers in 2017-18.
Keita is not going to be Tilmon 2.0 — a powerful back-to-the-basket big who thrived in overpowering defenders with his size — according to Martin. Instead, he wants Keita to space out when possible and not clog up the lane, leaving options open for the Tigers to dribble penetrate either for layups or kick-outs.
“We don’t have a guy like Yaya, go and post up, no,” Martin said. “I want to open the post up. I just think Jeremiah was established, and he was able to do that. But I don’t want to just rely on pounding the ball inside, I want to have the lane open.”
Kaleb Brown, brother and teammate of Kobe Brown, is the other freshman, and even at 6-6 and a burly 265 pounds, Martin believes that he is a type of player who could play all five positions. Brookshire, at 6-1, is likely limited to a guard position, though is the exception rather than the rule with the freshmen.
How quickly those freshmen gel is important, especially with a quartet of transfers in the mix trying to find their own way.
“The freshman guys, we spend so much time talking to them,” Martin said. “Especially with just Zoom calls and phone calls, we probably spent more time than ever building a relationship (and) understanding what they’re coming into. And I think that’s been helpful.”