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Joe Boozell | | August 22, 2017

Missouri is going to be much better, but will its turnaround be historic?

  Jordan Barnett figures to provide valuable depth for Missouri in 2017-18.

There is plenty of data that illustrates just how much Missouri basketball has struggled recently. No need to rattle it all off. But one stat stands out, in particular. 

Eighteen Division I teams won more than 27 games last season.

Missouri has won 27 games in the past three years.

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Thankfully for the Mizzou faithful, things are about to change. Drastically. The Tigers probably won’t win 27 games in 2017-18, but they have a chance to improve as much in one offseason as any team in college basketball history.

That sounds like hyperbole. It’s not. Missouri finished 8-24 last season, which ranked 156th in KenPom. It didn’t win a single road game. The Tigers will be young this season – more on that soon – but there aren’t 10 more talented teams in college basketball right now. Perhaps just as important – the parts fit. In theory, anyway. It’s far, far too early to pencil Missouri into the Sweet 16 or anything; it’s not too early to acknowledge that the Tigers have a real chance to make the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

You likely know the high-profile additions by now, but a quick recap: Kim Anderson was let go at the end of the season; ex-California coach Cuonzo Martin took the gig. Then came Michael Porter Jr., a sweet-shooting, do-it-all combo forward that could be the best freshman in college basketball this season. Next, Jeremiah Tilmon – a center that, while not on Porter’s level as a player, projects to be one of the best big men in the SEC.

With Porter and Tillmon on board, Missouri had its cake. Jontay Porter, Michael’s younger brother, is the icing – Jontay isn’t as highly-touted as Michael, but like his sibling, he’s a smooth-stroking combo forward that any program in America would be lucky to have. Outside of Duke, Arizona and Michigan State, the Tigers have a frontcourt that stacks up against anyone’s in the country.

Including the SEC juggernaut that resides in Lexington.

Tilmon and the Porters (we’re open to better sitcom names) is a great foundation – but without a competent supporting cast, it’s not enough to do anything significant in this college hoops landscape. But Missouri’s depth is better than people think.

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You don’t want Jordan Barnett and Kevin Puryear as your first and second options in the SEC. But as your fifth and sixth? Sign us up – Barnett was Missouri’s leading scorer last season, averaging 12.2 points on 43.7 percent shooting. A 6-6 wing, Barnett can switch across multiple positions and should serve as a nice complementary piece next to the freshman trifecta. Puryear may not see as much time as he did last year – he’s an undersized big whose minutes will come at Tilmon or Jontay Porter’s expense – but he’s a proven starter at the high-major level. Puryear will be an overqualified reserve big man.

The Porters can stroke it, but Missouri desperately needed shooting in the backcourt to flank them. Enter Kassius Robertson, a grad transfer from Cassius who averaged 16.1 points and canned 41 percent of his 3s last season. Oh, and he fired seven of those puppies per game. Robertson is an elite shooter (he was a focal point of Cassius’ offense last season, and still hit more than 40 percent of his tries on crazy-high volume. Think his looks might be a bit cleaner playing with Tilmon and the Porters?).

The Robertson addition is far down the list of “flashiest Missouri moves” this offseason. But it’s crucial. Outside shooting isn’t just paramount because – duh – 3-pointers are great! It’s important because the mere threat of a long-range bomb makes life easier for everyone on the court. That Michael Porter drive into a crowded lane just became less crowded. That Tilmon double-team in the post just became single coverage. If Robertson can hang defensively, he’ll be a boon to Missouri’s tournament hopes.

2017 One Shining Moment

Returning guard Terrence Phillips is also in the fold – he shot less than 40 percent from the field a year ago, but he made 36 percent of his 3s on almost five attempts per game. Phillips also led Missouri in assists. What he’ll be asked to do: get the ball to Tilmon and the Porters in the right spots; hit open 3s. You’re not asking Phillips to be De’Aaron Fox. He should be qualified for the role he’s set to assume.

Here are some lineup combinations we could see from Martin this season. A quick point of order: Michael Porter can play anywhere besides point guard – but if you created a college power forward in a lab, he’d be the prototype. The conundrum: if he’s going to play with Tilmon and Jontay, he’ll have to play the three. Jontay’s shooting alleviates some of those concerns – spacing shouldn’t be an issue, even with Mizzou’s jumbo lineup – but it’s something to keep in mind.

Possible Missouri lineups
Position Combo 1 Combo 2 Combo 3 Combo 4
1 Terrence Phillips Kassius Robertson Terrence Phillips Terrence Phillips
2 Kassius Robertson Jordan Barnett Kassius Robertson Robertson/Barnett
3 Michael Porter, Jr. Michael Porter, Jr. Jordan Barnett Michael Porter, Jr.
4 Jontay Porter Jontay Porter Michael Porter, Jr. Kevin Puryear
5 Jeremiah Tilmon Jeremiah Tilmon Jontay Porter/Tilmon Jontay Porter/Tilmon

There are uncertainties with this Missouri team. Young squads typically don’t win at the highest level. Michael Porter might not be able to play his natural position. Martin has had ultra-talented teams that have underachieved in the past. But one thing that is certain – the Tigers will win more than eight games this season. Like, a lot more.

Here’s a brief look at some of the most substantial single-season turnarounds in college basketball history. Missouri’s has a chance to be the most substantial of them all.

2003-04 Texas El-Paso

2002-03: 6-24

2003-04: 24-8 (NCAA tournament first round)

Billy Gillispie’s Miners were picked to finish ninth of 10 teams in the preseason WAC poll. Behind junior college transfers Filberto Rivera and Omar Thomas, UTEP nearly upset the 4-seed, Maryland, in the NCAA tournament.

1999-00 Iowa State

1998-99: 15-15

1999-00: 32-5 (Elite Eight)

Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Fizer led the Cyclones to an Elite Eight one year after finishing .500.

2000-01 Boston College

1999-00: 11-19

2000-01: 27-5 (NCAA tournament second round)

Troy Bell averaged 20.4 points per game as a sophomore for the Golden Eagles, who earned a 3-seed in the 2001 tournament. Al Skinner was named AP Coach of the Year.

1999-00 LSU

1998-99: 12-15

1999-00: 28-6 (Sweet 16)

The Tigers hadn’t made the Big Dance since 1993, Shaquille O’Neal’s final season. Stromile Swift led LSU to the Sweet 16, averaging 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.

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Young teams are unpredictable by nature. We know Missouri will be better than last season, but how much better? Hard to say. We can fantasize about the Tigers’ three-headed frontcourt monster, the role players becoming folk heroes, and Michael Porter going all Kevin Durant on college basketball. Those expectations are realistic – but it’s a high-end outcome. There’s also a low-end outcome to consider.

Regardless, it’s going to be a blast following this Missouri team in 2017-18. In a college basketball season littered with fun storylines, the Tigers’ potential historic turnaround is near the top of the list.

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