Freshman growth promises stronger second half of SEC play

Freshman trio of Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson serves as strong, albeit young, core for Missouri moving forward this season and in the coming years.
Missouri guards Torrence Watson, left, and Javon Pickett talk during a dead ball in the second half of MU's fourth annual Rally for Rhyan game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. The Tigers beat the Commodores 77-67.

Freshman guard Xavier Pinson played a season-high 32 minutes in Missouri’s road loss against No. 1 Tennessee on Tuesday night.

Since sophomore transfer Mark Smith suffered an ankle injury on Jan. 23 against Arkansas, Pinson and fellow freshman Torrence Watson have played a combined 184 minutes across four games.

“I think that Torrence and [Xavier] have really stepped up,” senior guard Jordan Geist said. “I think it was more on them to kind of fill [Smith’s] role.”

While Missouri’s most recent contest against Tennessee resulted in a 70-62 loss, the Tigers cut their deficit in half compared to their initial meeting with UT on Jan. 8. In that first game, against a then-No. 3 Tennessee team, the Volunteers dominated the Tigers for a 24-point win.

Earlier this week, Missouri held on to lose by just 12 points to a No. 1 Tennessee team.

“I think we did a great job of putting forth effort defensively and trying to score on offense just for the whole game,” Watson said. “That’s been one of our problems this year is playing hard, giving effort, playing consistent throughout the whole game.”

Despite early adversity that struck Missouri when it lost sophomore forward Jontay Porter for the year, the Tigers went 9-3 in nonconference play. However, the strong start quickly dissipated in conference play.

Missouri lost its first three SEC games by double digits to Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama.

“Sometimes when young guys deal with some adversity they kind of give up, but these guys just get in the gym everyday and keep working,” Geist said.

Coach Cuonzo Martin offered similar sentiments about the season’s tribulations.

“I think some of my young guys learned tough lessons, but valuable lessons,” he said. “Of course, I think we’re better now because we went through a lot of different things.”

One of the most telling signs of Missouri’s growth this season is its shrinking number of turnovers.

In its Nov. 9 loss against Iowa State, the second game of the season, Missouri gave up a season-high 25 turnovers. Pinson and Javon Pickett each gave up four turnovers in the game.

The Tigers have only reached 20 or more turnovers three times since the ISU loss, all of them being since the start of conference play.

Pinson, Pickett and Watson combined for 23 of the 64 turnovers in those three games.

In the past two games, the freshman trio has combined for just six turnovers.

“I think they’ve grown a lot,” coach Martin said. “I think you’re a different team when you take care of the basketball.”

As the back half of conference play begins, the freshman trio recognizes the lessons they’ve learned from the season’s beginnings that will help propel them forward.

“I’ve learned that the SEC is definitely one of the most hard conferences to play in just from the scouting, the preparation, just getting ready for each game,” Watson said. “There are so many good players. I think that now that we’ve settled into the SEC, we’re doing better.”

Pickett, who’s started every game this season, believes the team has begun to gel.

“We’re playing as a unit,” Pickett said. “One thing we talk about a lot is just going out there and having fun. That’s the one thing we have to do. Just go out there and have fun, play for one another.”

While Missouri still has at least nine games, including Saturday’s contest against Texas A&M, before it closes out its season, there is expected chatter of the future amongst such a young core.

“That’s definitely a thing, looking forward to the future,” Watson said. “Knowing that we’re young guys and if we keep building and getting people to come to this program we have a chance to win the championship someday.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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