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Missouri men, women start season with more questions than answers

Missouri men, women start season with more questions than answers

November 6th, 2018 by Colin O'Brien in Mizzou Sports

In this Nov. 26, 2017, file photo, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin gives instructions to Jontay Porter during a game against West Virginia in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Porter will miss the season after having knee surgery due to injuries suffered in a scrimmage.

Photo by Associated Press /Fulton Sun.

COLUMBIA — Missouri's men's and women's basketball teams both start their seasons today, Cuonzo Martin's team at home against Central Arkansas and Robin Pingeton's squad on the road against Western Illinois.

And both teams start the season with big questions, some of which won't be answered until March.

For the women's team, the biggest question is whether or not the Tigers can translate all their regular-season success into a deep postseason run in Sophie Cunningham's last year with the team.

Cunningham, regardless of her talent level, was always destined to end up at Missouri. But she is immensely talented, and was on the radar of prominent programs even before she became a 4-time Class 5 state champion at Rock Bridge and before she was named a McDonald's All-American. The Cunningham family has deep roots in Mid-Missouri and a family history of producing Tigers.

More than any other player, Cunningham has built Missouri into the kind of program it is; one with a devoted following of die-hard fans, many of them young girls who will wait hours after a game to get a picture with the always-obliging star, one that can consistently challenge the best teams in the Southeastern Conference and the country on its home court.

The problem has been the Tigers have missed out on hosting an NCAA Regional at Mizzou Arena, and have not made it past the second round of either the SEC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament in three seasons with a program-defining player hitting scoop-under layups and dishing out visionary assists.

In exhibition play, Missouri didn't look like a team that would earn a home NCAA Regional. Turnovers and a lack of height threaten to derail what should be a victory lap for Cunningham, who in all likelihood will be a top-10 selection in the 2019 WNBA draft.

Cunningham has undoubtedly made her mark, and the team's on-court success and off-court culture has made it an attractive destination for the state's best players, including Jefferson City senior Micah Linthacum and five-stars Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank. But winning the SEC Tournament or making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament — preferably at home — would be the crowning achievement of a storied career in black and gold.

One thing the women's and men's teams have in common are skilled coaches who know how to address the issues facing their teams. If anyone can round this women's team into post-season shape it's Pingeton, and if anyone can plot the course forward for the men's team it's Martin, who along with his staff had to re-work the Tigers' offense on the fly last year after losing Michael Porter Jr. to back surgery.

The question this year is how high is the ceiling for this team? A .500 record in conference play is absolutely on the table, but so is 11-7 or 6-12.

Martin has said the offense won't change without Jontay Porter, who will miss the season after tearing his MCL and ACL in a closed preseason scrimmage.

The injury was all the more unfortunate because of its timing. Porter's tendinitis had cleared days before a sophomore season he didn't have to play, after he elected to return to college following unfavorable marks on his athleticism at this past summer's NBA Draft combine.

But it won't be easy for Martin or the Tigers this season, which already looked like a building year before the team lost its returning Freshman All-SEC team player, its best pure scorer, best passer and best defender before the first game.

This year's squad is deeper, but again will be a balancing act between transfers, freshmen and returning veterans. Martin showed he could navigate that challenge in his first season at Missouri, but even if he is able to achieve similar results in chemistry with this year's team, it's possible they miss even the NIT.

Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon are the team's returning scoring and rebounding leaders, and neither reached averages of nine points or five rebounds per game in 2017-18.

The real test for the Tigers should come Friday as the Tigers travel to the hostile environs of Hilton Coliseum to face Iowa State in Ames, Iowa. Just like last season, it's entirely possible this Missouri team looks entirely different at the start of the season, the start of conference play and the start of the SEC tournament.

What is unclear, at the dawn of a new season, is whether or not this team has breakout stars it can develop in the mould of Kassius Robertson or Jontay, who contributed enough, sometimes single-handedly, to win games and power the team to a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.