1. Last year, Missouri was one of the worst power conference teams in the country. What, if any, improvements have they made since Xavier saw them last December?
Sam Snelling: Last year Missouri was a pretty average team defensively, they played at a plodding pace, and had a lot of trouble scoring. So coaches had to scheme their way into games. It wasn't pretty to watch at all. There was significant roster turnover as a couple highly rated recruits left, and they graduated a few guys on top of that. From a recruiting rankings perspective, none of the new additions were all that exciting, but this roster feels more composed than last years. So far the offense has more flow, they are able to play at a faster pace, and they're doing all of that with a still very young roster. And based upon Kim Anderson's history at Division II Central Missouri, this is more the style of basketball he wants to play. It will be interesting to see if they can keep it up as the competition level steps up.
2. Kevin Puryear is averaging 16.5 points per game for the Tigers so far. Is he set to be their leading scoring option all season, or is there another player Xavier should be on the lookout for?
SS: Puryear has a nice, well rounded, offensive game. He's sort of a tweener in size, but his ability to knock down jump shots makes him somebody to keep an eye on. The two teams Mizzou has faced to date didn't provide a lot of size to challenge him, so I'm not sure if Puryear will still be a top option once he's going against athletic 6'9+ players like Xavier has in Jalen Reynolds. I still think the offense is going to largely be guard-oriented, with Wes Clark, K.J. Walton and Namon Wright leading the scoring most nights. Clark is a playmaker who plays off the ball, though mainly is a point guard. He's a tough matchup and has no trouble getting his shot up when the offense breaks down. Walton is a physical freshman wing who excels at driving to the basket and scoring through contact. And Wright is a pretty elite shooter. Puryear is a nice surprise to the start of the season, and if teams don't respect his ability to shoot, he'll continue to put up big numbers, but by the end of the season I like one of those other three to lead the team in scoring.
3. What is Missouri's ideal defensive game plan against this Xavier club with the likes of Trevon Bluiett and Jalen Reynolds as the primary scoring options?
SS: Mizzou has adapted their defensive approach from last season. They're playing more of a pack-line style of defense and laying off the ball in order to clog the interior passing and driving lanes. They've been slightly successful so far, but Xavier is an NCAA tournament team with a very good offense, so this matchup is tough. I expect they'll try to limit drives to the basket, and hope to force the Musketeers to take more contested jumpshots. On the interior, they've been sandwiching post players with the helpside defense. Although they haven't faced somebody with the athleticism of Reynolds. This is likely the biggest worry for them, as Jakeenan Gant has everybit the athleticism of Reynolds, without having the size, or the physical presence. My guess is they'll be willing to give Xavier looks from three by doubling down, and hope they don't make a lot of them.
4. Who is an ‘x factor' on Mizzou that could provide a bit of difference-making in this game?
SS: I mentioned him in the last question, but Jakeenan Gant has elite athleticism, and the ability to stretch a defense. Plus, he hasn't quite broken out with his scoring since the first collegiate game he played last year against... Xavier. Gant had 13 points, plus a few blocks and a few rebounds on top of that. If Mizzou is going to hang with Xavier on the road, they're really going to need Gant to play well. The back up "x-factor" is probably Clark. Clark is the most experienced guard, and exhibits the most leadership on the team. He's got the ability to challenge the younger players to stop up against a tough team on the road, but also provide enough plays to help the young guys feel they can stay in the game.
5. Who takes this one? Mizzou or Xavier?
SS: Haha, Xavier. Mizzou, according to KenPom only has a 11% chance to win this game. And while they're better than they were last year, they're not "beat a top 40 team on the road" better. I could see them maybe pulling off a road upset during conference play, but I'll be happy if this game ends with them losing by less than 10 points. In the end, I think Xavier wins, though Mizzou makes them fight for it, and probably by about 14 points. If everything goes right, Mizzou hangs around until the last few minutes of the game and likely still loses by 5-6.
Big thanks to Sam Snelling of Rock M Nation for helping us out on this preview!