Freshmen show promise in senior day loss

Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson combined for 34 points in Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss.
Guard Xavier Pinson shoots a wide open layup in the first half of the Missouri vs. Ole Miss men's basketball game on Saturday, March 9 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.

As the curtains closed for seniors Jordan Geist and Kevin Puryear on senior day, the on-court action was all about Missouri’s freshmen, whose performance wasn’t enough to keep Missouri (14-16, 5-13 SEC) from a 73-68 loss to Ole Miss (20-11, 10-8 SEC).

Make no mistake, Geist and Puryear have put together impressive careers at MU. Puryear is a 1,000 point scorer and Geist has been one of the SEC’s most improved players during his career, transforming from a bench player to Missouri’s leading scorer over three years.

But Missouri’s end of the regular season has shown drastic improvement from the freshmen which should breed excitement for Tiger fans over the future of Cuonzo Martin’s program.

Freshman guard Torrence Watson, who struggled at the beginning of conference play, opened the scoring for Missouri on Saturday night with a fast break 3 from the wing off a pass from fellow freshman Xavier Pinson. Watson also hit a clutch 3 to give Missouri a 1-point lead with 3:36 to go.

Watson scored 14 points for his fourth-straight game in double figures after only five double-figure performances in the season’s first 26 games.

Watson also held Terence Davis, the Rebels’ second-leading scorer, to 7 points on 2-for-10 shooting.

“He’s one of the most improved players in our league,” Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis said.

Watson wasn’t the only freshman to stand out. After Geist picked up his third foul in the first half, he gave way to Pinson, who took over the reigns at point guard as Geist went to the bench with Missouri down 1 point with 4:49 left in the half.

Pinson found sophomore center Jeremiah Tilmon for two-straight buckets and then finished through contact for two layups before igniting the Mizzou Arena crowd with a step-back 3 with 50 seconds left in the half. Pinson scored or assisted on 14-straight points in the last 3:57 of the half gave Missouri a 34-26 lead at the break.

On senior night the torch looked to be passed from Geist to Pinson, who finished with five assists and a career-high 20 points.

Pinson, Watson and freshman Javon Pickett, who missed Saturday’s game with a back injury, but averaged 8.3 points per game over 29 starts this season, provide a trio of young guards for Missouri for the next three years.

“Those three young guards, they’re going to be something in our league,” Davis said. “They’re tough. They’re Cuonzo’s type of guys.”

All three were recruited by Martin, who is now able to shape his roster in his second season at Missouri.

“This core of freshmen that we have, their work ethic is just phenomenal,” Puryear said.

Another one of Martin’s recruits is Tilmon, who is coming up on just the halfway mark of his career for Missouri. His foul-trouble has stifled Missouri at times, but he showed small steps of improvement this season.

Tilmon is still a work in progress, but he stayed out of foul trouble on Saturday and was a steady presence in the paint with 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

Pinson, Watson and Tilmon scored 45 of Missouri’s 68 points in the loss. All three are expected to return to Mizzou Arena next season as Martin gets to mold his roster under players who already have gained experience in their freshman and sophomore seasons.

“It’s been a bumpy road for us,” Watson said. “I’m happy that it’s our freshman year and we’re getting our bumps out now and I think that next year, and even going into the SEC tournament, we’re maturing and it’s going to take care of itself.”

The trio will also be given reinforcements with the return of two of this season’s starters in Pickett and sophomore Mark Smith, who both missed the season finale with injuries. Smith shot a team-high 45 percent from behind the arc and averaged 11.4 points per game in his 19 contests.

Those five players, who each have two more years of eligibility with the Tigers, make up a strong young core that will also welcome four-star recruits Tray Jackson and Mario McKinney next season.

Possibly the most important newcomer for Missouri is someone who is currently on campus.

As the Tigers went through warmups, junior point guard Dru Smith was standing on the sidelines in sweatpants and sneakers. The transfer from the University of Evansville’s attempt to become immediately eligible was squashed by Evansville, and Smith has been forced to sit for the entire year.

Dru will join sophomore guard Mark, who will return next season from ankle surgery, for an all-Smith backcourt that could be extremely potent for Missouri.

Now that Martin is finally able to put together his own roster, it looks like his program is trending upward.

“Mizzou fans really have a lot to be excited about,” Kevin Puryear said.

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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