Roundball Renaissance

Basketball is alive and well in the Show-Me State.

basketball players and coach

Tigers in action, clockwise from top, are: new Coach Cuonzo Martin, freshman forward Jontay Porter, junior forward Kevin Puryear, freshman forward Jeremiah Tilmon, freshman guard Blake Harris, senior forward Jordan Barnett and graduate guard Kassius Robertson. Photo illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

At Mizzou Arena’s north entrance stands a larger-than-life bronze representation of Norm Stewart, the Missouri basketball coaching legend, casting a literal shadow on the walkway along with his figurative one in Mizzou’s record books. Cuonzo Martin, hired in March 2017 as the program’s 19th coach, now walks past the towering likeness daily on the way to the office. “You have one of the greatest coaches in history here who preached toughness,” Martin says. “Norm brought that energy to every game.”

Although the statue gestures to an imaginary player — and toward the Hearnes Center, the setting of much of Stewart’s storied past — Mizzou fans hope it also points to a bright future.

For the St. Louis-born Martin, a Purdue University alumnus coached by Boilermakers hall of famer Gene Keady, that future starts with recruiting. Martin hit the ground running by compiling the nation’s No. 3 incoming class, according to the 247Sports Composite Recruiting Rankings. Unfortunately, the team sustained a severe blow when Columbia’s own Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s top recruit, underwent back surgery Nov. 21, possibly ending his first college season after playing only two minutes.

The remaining roster is formidable, beginning with Porter’s younger brother Jontay. The 6-foot-11-inch forward reclassified in August to enroll at Mizzou a year early out of high school, and he was dynamic in an early season win over St. John’s in the Advocare Invitational in Orlando. The Tigers reached the tournament’s championship game where they fell to West Virginia, 83-79.

Joining him in the paint are Jeremiah Tilmon (East St. Louis, Illinois), the fierce freshman rebounder; and junior Kevin Puryear (Blue Springs, Missouri), the Tigers’ most experienced big man. St. Louis forward Jordan Barnett — who along with Porter was named to the Advocare all-tournament team — has displayed a high-flying style that electrifies Mizzou Arena crowds.

basketball player dunking

Jeremiah Tilmon, an All-State forward at East St. Louis (Illinois) High School, dunks in the home opener against Iowa State on Nov. 10.

In the backcourt, graduate transfer Kassius Robertson (Toronto) has been a top scorer, averaging 14.6 points per game. Junior guard Terrence Phillips (Orange County, California) — whose 142 assists last season tie him for eighth all-time in the Tigers’ single-season records — provides leadership and passing prowess, while Blake Harris (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), a top-100 recruit, looks to have a bright future. Juniors Cullen VanLeer (Pacific, Missouri) and Jordan Geist (Fort Wayne, Indiana) provide depth at the guard position.

“We know which players operate better than others in certain situations, so now it’s just a matter of putting them in positions to be successful,” says Martin of his 7-2 Tigers. “We have size, athleticism and length — multiple guys who are 6-7, 6-8 and 6-11. And they can move.”

Martin has restored enthusiasm for a program that, prior to this season, hadn’t sold out a Mizzou Arena game since March 5, 2013. That ended opening night when the Tigers defeated former Big 12 rival Iowa State, 74-59. The Tigers’ 2017–18 public season ticket sales total of 9,572 is a Mizzou Arena record and nearly 4,000 tickets more than the previous season’s total of 5,802. “It felt amazing [to play in front of a sold-out crowd],” Barnett said after the victory. “To start the season like that and come out in front of a packed house and get a good win shows a lot about this team. We have tremendous potential to be a really good team.”

basketball players on sideline

No. 1 recruit Michael Porter Jr., center, had back surgery Nov. 21, after playing two minutes in the home opener.

Pingeton’s best team ever?

On the women’s side, expectations are high for Coach Robin Pingeton’s squad. The Tigers, 7-1 and ranked No. 17, are coming off a successful 2016–17 campaign that featured a first-round NCAA Tournament win and a regular-season upset of eventual national champion South Carolina.

After a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky, the Tigers won five consecutive games to capture the Cal Classic Championship, which culminated in a 55-52 win over No. 21 California.

Junior All-SEC guard Sophie Cunningham (Columbia) has solidified her status as one of the nation’s premier scorers and all-around leaders. Her 989 points over two seasons were the second most by a sophomore in school history. Cunningham’s 1,115 current point total already puts her at 26th on Mizzou’s career scoring list, and the next 100 will vault her into the top 20. “Coach Pingeton has set a very high standard,” Cunningham says. “It’s all about discipline, focus and doing things the right way.”

Redshirt senior Jordan Frericks (Quincy, Illinois), the team’s second-leading scorer averaging 14.1 points per game, is an early candidate for the Katrina McClain Award given to the nation’s top power forward. Cierra Porter (Columbia), older sister of Jontay and Michael, carries the family legacy for Mizzou women’s hoops. The team’s top rebounder, averaging *9.8 per game, Porter led the SEC in made free throws in 2016–17.

basketball coach on sideline

Reigning SEC Coach of the Year Robin Pingeton is shown here with the 2016–17 squad, which posted 22 wins.

Guard Amber Smith (Shreveport, Louisiana) is coming off an SEC Freshman of the Year season, and guard Jordan Chavis (Lexington, North Carolina) played in all 33 games as a freshman. Redshirt junior Lauren Aldridge (Marshfield, Missouri), a transfer from Kansas who sat out last season to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements, brings additional veteran leadership to the Tiger backcourt.

“Time will tell [if this is the best team I’ve ever had],” Pingeton said before the opener of her 8th season at MU. “A lot of that will depend on how quickly our new players pick up terminology and understand the physicality of the play. But it’s definitely one of the better teams that we’ve had.”

As Martin and Pingeton lead the Tigers into the new year, SEC play and beyond, their teams’ trajectories will become clearer with every Mizzou victory on Norm Stewart Court. But for faithful Missouri fans, one thing is already abundantly clear: Basketball is alive and well in the Show-Me State.

group of basketball players

In the huddle are, from left, freshman forward Emmanuelle Tahane, sophomore forward Hannah Schuchts, senior forward Kayla Michael, junior guard Sophie Cunningham, junior guard Lauren Aldridge, sophomore guard Amber Smith, senior forward Jordan Frericks, and junior forward Cierra Porter.

basketball player shooting

The Mizzou women are led by junior guard Sophie Cunningham, a high-scorer from Rock Bridge High School in Columbia.

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