Notebook: Despite COVID challenges, Mizzou eager to take the court

In the same week that Missouri’s 2020-21 basketball schedule has finally come together, the football team provided an illustration of just how difficult playing all 26 games might be.

Missouri has been one of several SEC football programs decimated by COVID-19 quarantines this week. The Tigers saw two players test positive for the virus, which forced enough close contacts in quarantine that the team didn’t have enough defensive linemen to play its game against Georgia, scheduled for Saturday. That will be one of four league games scheduled for Saturday that has to be postponed. It’s the second time Missouri has had a game postponed this season, although the first came as a result of an outbreak on Vanderbilt’s team.

The increase in postponements coincides with a spike in COVID-19 cases both locally and nationally. The United States reported more than 194,000 new cases on Thursday alone, the most recently available data as of this writing. As the weather continues to cool, those numbers aren’t likely to get better any time soon, barring the widespread release of an effective vaccine.

The SEC’s football problems also illustrate the issue of contact tracing, which could be even more detrimental to basketball than football. Sports Illustrated reported this week that, like Missouri, Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M all have fewer than five players who have tested positive for COVID-19, but those positive tests have put far more players into quarantine. If a half-dozen or so players need to be isolated as a result of every positive test, a single infected player could be enough to sideline an entire basketball team, comprised of 13 scholarship players, for two weeks, meaning the postponement of about three games.

“The difference, I think, in football and basketball, is if we drop one, we probably will drop two or three games, possibly four, because of the way we play our games,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “And that’s tough.”

Cuonzo Martin acknowledged the challenges college basketball will face this season due to COVID-19, but said his team is still excited to start its season. (Jessi Dodge)

Martin does not appear to be entering this season believing Missouri is going to play every single one of its games. But he also pointed out that it doesn’t necessarily have to.

During a virtual press conference Wednesday, he acknowledged that it’s impossible to keep college students from coming into contact with the coronavirus, saying you can’t force players to wear a mask around their significant others or family members who might come to town for games. However, Martin expressed optimism that Missouri will be able to complete some semblance of a season — enough, at least, to be eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m hopeful that we can have a season,” Martin said. “Our goal is to try to take it one game at a time. The NCAA allows us, we have to get at least 13 games in order to be NCAA Tournament eligible. Right now we’re scheduled to play 27. So, I mean, we’ll take it one day at a time.”

If Missouri were to be sidelined during non-conference play, it would likely have a better chance of making up games. The Tigers have just one game currently scheduled between Dec. 12 and the start of conference play on Dec. 30. The university’s finals week and Christmas both fall in that time frame, but the team could likely schedule an additional game or two during that window. Martin acknowledged the possibility of adding a local team to the schedule if one of the currently-planned non-conference contests falls through.

“The key is two things,” he said. “You have to lose some (games), and you feel like you can’t get them back, and then you have to have a window to make that game up. And I think if there was anything made up, it might be a team close in proximity to where we are on this campus as opposed to trying to get on a plane to go play somebody. … If that party can make it work, then you might see a game.”

Making up conference games, however, poses a more significant challenge. Missouri is currently scheduled to play two games each week from Dec. 30 to March 3. That allows just one weekend prior to the conference tournament for games to be made up.

Ultimately, Martin said his attitude is simply to make sure his program takes all the precautions it can, then take the schedule one game at a time. The good news, he said, is that the Tigers’ experienced roster hasn’t seemed fazed by all the scheduling uncertainty. While Missouri had to go multiple months without holding in-person practices over the summer due to COVID-19, it’s been back to business as usual.

With last season being cut short prior to the SEC Tournament and the start of this one delayed by two weeks, this is likely the longest most of the players on Missouri’s upperclassman-laden roster have gone without playing in a basketball game since taking up the sport. Both Martin and his players said the team is chomping at the bit to get back on the floor.

“I think more than anything our guys are probably ready to play,” Martin said, “… Though we weren’t here in June or July, it just feels like our guys are ready to go. Now it’s time to just go play basketball. And I think with basketball players, you want to play games. You want to play against good competition, you want to play games, you want to compete. Some might think it would be a little bit different because of the lack of fans that you might have. But I think once the ball is tipped, it’s basketball and you’re trying to win a basketball game.”

“Man, we are killing for it,” redshirt sophomore Parker Braun said of the start of the season. “We’re all super excited. Just kind of being away from each other for so long I think kind of brought us closer together. When we all got back, we were all super excited to be back together and be back on the same court as each other. We can’t wait to kind of use that energy toward someone else.”

Buggs finding his fit

It was little secret that Martin and his staff sought to add a graduate transfer to the roster following last season. When they finally settled on former Hawaii point guard Drew Buggs, some fans might have scratched their heads. After all, with the return of Dru Smith (named Thursday to the preseason all-SEC second team) and Xavier Pinson, if there was one position where the Tigers seemed well-stocked, it was point guard.

But Buggs believes his style of play complements that of Pinson and Smith. Speaking publicly Wednesday for the first time since he arrived on Missouri’s campus, he said the three guards “all bring something different to the table.”

“I feel like I complement them well,” Buggs said. “I’m able to take a lot of pressure off them in terms of handling the ball, and just allow them to focus on moving without the ball and getting open, easy shots. I feel like that’s my job, is just to get these guys on the team easier shots.”

Buggs said his game is more comparable to Smith than Pinson, who he described as “real fast.” With all three of them on the roster, he said the Tigers should be able to play at a higher tempo than the past couple seasons — a change alluded to by assistant coach Cornell Mann when he joined PowerMizzou on the 573 Report. According to Ken Pomeroy, Missouri ranked among the bottom 100 Division I teams in pace each of the past two seasons.

“We got the deepest guard lineup in the conference, and so we want to use that to our advantage,” he said. “We want to be able to push the ball, play at a fast pace.”

Buggs said there haven’t been many times in practice yet when he, Pinson and Smith are all on the floor together, in part because they guard one another. He pointed to that as one of the biggest differences between Hawaii and Missouri: having other point guards to push him during practice. He also said he understands that he will have to take a backseat to the two returning point guards at times. That’s fine by him.

“I’ve been in a position where I’ve played 38 minutes, 40 minutes a game, so that’s not something that I really was looking for,” said Buggs. “I want to be a winner. I want to be able to contribute, so I’m fine taking a dip in my role or minutes in order to be a winner and contribute.”

Braun details offseason improvement

Back in March, shortly after Missouri returned from the SEC Tournament that wasn’t, the school closed down campus and sent students home for the remainder of the semester. At that point, Braun realized it would likely be a while before he was able to train with his Missouri teammates and coaching staff again.

So, Braun texted Martin, asking him where he should focus his offseason training. Martin encouraged him to add strength to his wiry frame and improve his perimeter skills — ball-handling and shooting. Fast forward seven months, and Martin nominated Braun as the Missouri player who showed the most improvement during the offseason.

“He’s always had good legs on him, his body’s filled out, he’s been impressive knocking the three-ball down, so he would probably be the one guy I’d say that’s stood out the most in comparison to where he was,” Martin said of Braun on Oct. 14.

Braun certainly benefited from his quarantine situation. Whereas many players struggled to find a place to work out, he said his family’s house contains a weight room. He also had someone to train with in his younger brother Christian Braun, who plays for Kansas.

“We were fortunate enough to kind of have a weight room in my house, and … my brother also plays at a high level, so we kind of pushed each other every day, and I think that’s kind of what coach Martin was talking about in seeing improvements,” Braun said.

Braun flashed his ability at times as a redshirt freshman, most notably when he recorded six points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 24 minutes during a win over Ole Miss. But for most of the season, his role remained inconsistent. He played 10 minutes or more just seven times.

Now, after his offseason improvement, Braun believes he will be able to create mismatches more frequently, which should provide him a steadier role. The strength he added to his 6-foot-8 frame should allow him to hold his own in the low post, while his improved ball-handling and shooting should make him difficult for less agile defenders to guard on the perimeter.

“If I got smaller guys on me, we can take advantage of that inside, and if we got bigger, kind of less mobile guys, then we can take advantage of that on the outside,” Braun said. “It just kind of depends on the matchup, depends on the scouting report. But I’ll kind of do whatever it takes. I try to be versatile, inside and out.”

Published: 2020-11-15 11:00:00

Tags: #Notebook #COVID #challenges #Mizzou #eager #court


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