I’m happy to be joined today by Sam Snelling, Co-Manager of Rock M Nation, SB Nation’s Mizzou blog who was kind enough to answer some of my questions. You can read my Q&A with Rock M Nation here.
Brandon Birkhead: First off, stop stealing our players. It’s very uncouth.
Sam Snelling: Ok so I’m willing to bet there’s only been one guy Missouri ‘stole’ since Javon Pickett was cut loose and Mark Smith was basically jettisoned as well. I don’t remember there being too many Illini fans upset about either when the news broke. If you can show me otherwise I’ll gladly recant, but I also think if you want to hold onto players it’s best not the fire the coach they committed to! ;)
BB: Speaking of one of those former players, it really jumps out that Mark Smith has figured out how to shoot again (3P% .472 vs .232 with Illinois) and is rebonding very well for a guard (5.2 vs 1.4). How has the rest of his game been this season, and what do you credit this turnaround to? Sidenote: I always thought he was carrying an injury we weren’t told about last year.
SS: The info I have is Smith actually dealt with an illness that slowed him down in December and never quite recovered. But talent and ability was never his issue. For one, I don’t think he ever really settled with the coaching staff, and that isn’t all that surprising considering the marriage was a quick one between Smith and Underwood. Missouri had several shot-gun weddings with players in the 2017 class and only Jeremiah Tilmon is logging minutes this year. So it happens.
One thing I think is undersold is how much better of a defender Smith is than he was a year ago. Perhaps it’s Cuonzo’s approach to position over pressure that fits Smith better, but whatever it is it’s working. He’s been rock steady and has consistently drew the toughest perimeter matchups from the opponent. It’ll be interesting to see him try to match up against a team like Illinois who has a few more of the ‘smaller/quicker’ type guards than the bigger more physical variety.
Offensively he’s been put into position to make shots. His usage is low which means he’s not being asked to do a lot with the ball in his hands, but just play off the other guys on the court and that pressure relief has basically turned him into this season’s version of Jordan Barnett. Both play a lot of minutes but play primarily off the ball and a hefty percentage of their looks are pretty open. And then the last part is obviously he’s just a year older. Sometimes just going through it once helps a lot of guys. He wasn’t happy where he was, he got to a place where he’s happier and now he’s playing better. And I don’t mean that as a dig to Underwood.
BB: How would you describe the team’s start this season?
SS: Rounding into shape? This team is going to have some rough moments because they’re young and not especially talented. Sure Torrence Watson, Mark Smith, and Jeremiah Tilmon all form a pretty solid nucleus moving forward but Missouri is getting a lot from guys we didn’t expect to be getting that much from. This is one area where I think Cuonzo Martin is excellent and that’s getting buy-in from his players. They fight hard, and play together, and they are figuring out how to be the best version of themselves in order to win more games than they probably should. Once Jontay Porter went down with an injury I think many fans looked at this season as a lost one, and if Mizzou can somehow win against Illinois, they’d enter SEC play at 9-3 and a legit shot to get to .500 in conference play, which I think it good enough for the bubble. If you’d have told me that was realistic 3-4 weeks ago I wouldn’t have believed you. So there is a sense of cautious optimism right now.
BB: How do Mizzou fans feel about Cuonzo Martin?
SS: I think everyone is pretty bought in right now. He’s turned the tables on St. Louis recruiting in a way we’ve never seen from a Missouri coach. Landing Tilmon, then Watson and Smith, plus Mario McKinney, and now being in very good shape with Caleb Love and Cam’Ron Fletcher, I think you’re seeing fans believe the program is very close to being re-established and back where it should be nationally. The program is still a year away from really getting there, maybe two, but overall I think most fans believe Cuonzo Martin has turned into a home run hire for the school. For me personally I was skeptical of Martin when he was hired because he had never shown the ability to grow offensively. You knew he was going to bring toughness and defense but he’s changed his offensive approach to better fit his personnel and that kind of growth was important for me to see. I’ve seen him change and modify their offense to play with better spacing, and allow a higher focus on 3-pointers providing their value. Now if he can get a few more players in on the roster it’ll be interesting to see if they can turn up the tempo. Which is the next phase of being able to play pace-and-space.
BB: I’ve talked with several members on the TCR staff and other Illini fans about the Mizzou-Illinois rivalry of late due to several reasons (Mark Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett. Recruiting battles in football. Cuonzo Martin’s connections to Illinois, etc.) I think it used to be much more friendly, the sort of rivalry where you could root for the other team when they weren’t playing you. There is a reason it’s called Braggin’ Rights and not something like ‘Good Ole Fashioned Hate’ or the ‘Border War’. I am from Metro-East St. Louis so maybe I’m biased since I know many Mizzou fans, but am I off base that the rivalry is becoming more heated?
SS: It does feel like the rivalry has become more heated. It’s still nowhere near the level of how Mizzou fans feel about Kansas, and I’m sure the crossover in recruiting (which didn’t used to happen as often) has helped elevate the passion, but ultimately I think I’m still in the camp of wanting Illinois to do well. Possibly because I’m not an alum so I don’t have direct ties to the university, and most of the big Illini fans I interact with in my daily life are reasonable people. Former TCR Editor Jim Vainisi and I still have a good relationship, and I hope for my friends’ sake Illinois improves in both football and basketball.
But I think the advent of the social media presence, mainly Twitter, taking hold and forcing the worst examples of our fanbases into the forefront (ya know, those who tweet at CROOTS and start wars in their mentions) probably makes it feel more elevated as well. But the best case for both schools is the other is very good, and they play each other and at worst have a ‘good loss’ on the schedule. I’d much rather Mizzou lose to Illinois when the Illini are ranked in the top 25 than Mizzou beat them while they’re way down like the last few years. But I don’t know if I’m a great example of how the rest of the fanbase feels. Historically this matchup has mattered more on a national level, and I’d just like to get back to that place. If that means the fans have to exchange words on twitter a little more often to get there I’m ok with it.
But don’t at me on Twitter with nonsense. I use the mute button freely. <evil cackle>
BB: Finally, how do you see this game playing out and what is your score prediction.
I won’t be as bold as one of your writers who predicted a 19-point Illinois win. I guess that’s possible but I’d put it in a category of EXTREMELY unlikely, and I prefer to deal in probability. I know there are many on the Missouri side who feel this is a bad matchup for Mizzou, but it’s equally as bad for Illinois. It’s kind of the issue when you have two teams who just aren’t very good. Illinois’ flaw should be easily exploited by the Tigers, and the Tigers weakness should be easily exploited by Illinois.
I think this game ultimately comes down to two things:
1. Can Missouri avoid coughing the ball up against pressure defense?
2. Can Illinois make outside shots?
If Missouri isn’t turning the ball over, I think their offense is efficient enough to beat a good shooting night from Illinois. If Illinois’ guards go off and have a great shooting night, I’m not sure there’s much the Tigers can do. I’m going to assume things are basically played even for each team on the season and say I think Mizzou wins a close game. I think I’ve predicted a 5-point win on our podcast, so I’ll stick with that. But that’s not a very confident pick because asking a bad team like either Missouri or Illinois to just not be terrible for one night can be a lot to ask.
Watch Braggin’ Rights tonight at 7 p.m. on BTN and online on BTN2GO.
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