Missouri’s Santos debuts under unusual circumstances after foot injury

Sophomore transfer guard K.J. Santos played college basketball for the first time in nearly two years Friday, but he didn’t play much guard.
Missouri guard K.J. Santos (center) is boxed between Oral Roberts' Aidan Saunders and Francis Lacis during a free throw attempt in Missouri's 80-64 win on Friday, Dec. 7 2018 at Mizzou Arena.

K.J. Santos waited nearly two years to play basketball again. When a new season in 2018 came, he spent eight more games waiting to get out of a protective boot and have his chance to debut as a Missouri Tiger.

The chance finally presented itself Friday, and it didn’t go quite like Santos imagined it.

The sophomore transfer from the University of Illinois-Chicago didn’t play last year after transferring from a junior college and redshirting. Since transferring again to MU, Missouri’s roster page has referred to Santos as a 6-foot-8 guard. He didn’t play much guard in the Tigers’ 80-64 defeat of Oral Roberts Friday night, seen playing for the first time as a high-post fill-in while MU’s other big men were in foul trouble.

“I wanted to try to play K.J.,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Defensively, I think he’s ready to play, and obviously conditioning wise. Offensively, I think he’s a step slow and you can see that in practice. He hasn't been able to shoot shots because of the foot. It takes time.”

Santos didn’t score in 11 minutes at the new position, shooting 0-for-1 with a rebound and a steal. He entered with 10:46 left in the first half to an ovation from the otherwise lethargic Mizzou Arena crowd, then he got off to a rocky start with two turnovers on his first two touches.

“He’s a little out of it,” senior Jordan Geist said. “He hasn’t played in a real game in a while, so just getting him more action and more playing time is gonna help him out.”

But Santos’ ability to play was well-timed for Martin; the sophomore’s sheer presence became instrumental in the last 5 1/2 minutes of the first half, of which Santos played close to the entirety of to keep the ‘4’ position occupied in a game that was tighter at the time than it should ever be against Oral Roberts.

“New situation for K.J.,” Martin said. “Understandably, it was good for him.”

The Tigers went on an 11-5 run in the last 4:15 of the first half despite being starved of big men and with Santos in the game.

There wasn’t much to analyze from Santos during that stretch, especially since it’s not the position he’ll be expected to play going forward, but it was still the important if unusual first appearance of a player who is considered crucial to Martin’s team and was a projected starter before his injury.

“[He brings] a lot of energy, smart play,” Geist said. “You can put him at the 3, put him at the 4, stretch the floor, so he could really help us out a lot.”

Santos’ only shot was a rushed turn-around jumper after having a pass forced on him at the end of the shot clock. He never touched the ball on his most impressive sequence of the half: Santos gave an effective off-ball screen to get Torrence Watson open in the corner, then when Santos was well-guarded on his roll, he used his space to slide toward the baseline and get open and force a kicked pass.

“As the season goes on, he’s gonna be a really great piece for us,” Watson said.

Santos defended well during both stretches when he was in the game. He pulled in a rebound in the second half, countered strongly as he was backed down in the post to force contested misses twice in the first frame and closed out on several other shots. He covered his gap well with a smart read to jump a pass in the final minutes, making for his only steal of the game.

“He knows his assignments defensively,” Martin said. “The 3, 4, 5, it’s all the same.”

Santos is expected to play more of the 2 and 3, like his bio says, as the season goes on, as he finishes his recovery and as the Tigers ideally avoid more foul trouble woes. Still, his limited and unorthodox time against Oral Roberts was a long time coming.

“He’s fought a hard battle with injuries and his foot, but just to see him out there playing again, I think that makes us all happy, and you know he’ll continue to get better,” senior Kevin Puryear said. “There’s a lot that he has that Mizzou fans are gonna be excited to see.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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