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To the Finish Line – Let the Cuonzo Era begin

It’s here. The highly anticipated start to the 2017-2018 Missouri Tiger basketball season is hours away, with excitement through the roof.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe what has transpired over the course of the past few months (thank you, Jim Sterk). It’s unprecedented when you talk about the transformation of this program, not to mention the revival of a hardwood rivalry, “exhibition” aside. “To the Finish Line” are the four words that I will be reminding myself of every time Mizzou laces ‘em up.

What are realistic expectations? How far will this team go? Can they compete for an SEC Championship? Are they an NCAA Tournament team?

These are just a few of the questions I’ve received from Mizzou fans over the past seven months following the hiring of Cuonzo Martin and his #3 overall recruiting class in year one. The thing of it is, this program is BACK regardless of what the record shows at the end of the year.

Every coach is judged on wins and losses, but Cuonzo Martin has been a home run hire coaching in an exhibition game thus far against a preseason top five team, and he did it all with seven newcomers to the program. After watching one half, it was clear that this program has already dug itself out of the hole it’s been in for years, something that usually takes more than an offseason to overcome. That alone is telling to how different Mizzou Basketball is going to look with the direction pointed up, not just for this year, but also for years to come.

The recruiting piece of the puzzle is always going to be top priority with a coaching staff, we know this. They’ve jumped that hurdle already in reviving the image of the program that has been one of the worst college basketball programs in a power five conference.

This team lacked elite talent in years past, but perhaps most importantly, it lacked an identity. Those touch points have been all but solved for Cuonzo Martin. He’s got talent at every stop he’s been at, while doing it the right way. Take pride in knowing that Cuonzo Martin is a living example of resilience, toughness, and understanding that the small things go the farthest. He gets it, he knows this state, he knows the national landscape, he’s respected as a man before anything else, and if you’re a parent, you know your son is going to grow not just as a player but as a person.

That’s what I want in my basketball coach, that’s always my baseline (pun intended).

From there, you look at his staff and you look at what he’s teaching, what he’s stressing. Are his players a reflection of him? Are his principals authentic and genuine? Does he have the respect and the trust of every person in that locker room, including his coaches?

That was all checked off the list when I watched this team practice at Mizzou Pro Day, which is a great opportunity for his players to get in front of numerous NBA scouts and executives.

The biggest takeaways for me on that day was how organized the practice was, how it flowed, how the situational periods and competition was at a high level, and how hard the guys worked. You could tell they were all on the same page. The moral was high, and teaching and learning were taking place.

Skill development, defensive principles, shot making drills, and a high level of detail were refreshing for me to see. There was no standing, the pace was high, and the pre and post practice work were efficient. That’s all I needed to see to know that this team and this program are in great hands.

This will be a competitive team, night in and night out. They were resilient in responding multiple times to an experienced top five team in Kansas (though preseason rankings mean absolutely nothing). They found themselves with both the lead and a double digit deficit in both halves, clawing back in a 93-87 loss in which the Tigers shot 55% from the free throw line. Mizzou out--rebounded and out-assisted the Jayhawks, while shooting better from the 3-point range.

They’ve already shown us in one game that the talent level is there, that the hype is justified. We also know that this is not just going to be the Michael Porter Jr. show. We have other pieces, other weapons and depth at multiple positions. I also like that our returners can play a valuable role with this team, knowing that we will have to count on them at different points in the season. Everyone has to play a part, the egos have to be checked, and, THE TEAM has to be above everything else. It’s a great thing when your best player, and future lottery pick, is the one who’s been saying that since he committed.

Winning cures all, winning is how you’re remembered. Winning is what puts fans in the stands and when you win EVERYONE in the program prospers. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your role is, or what your numbers show.

A few weeks ago, Cuonzo Martin sent an email to all former players. I thought I’d share a piece of his message with you that hit home with me. It speaks to the person Cuonzo is first and foremost.

“Our goal as a program is to always stay connected to our roots. As Mizzou alumni, you have gone on to do great things in basketball, your careers and beyond. What you represent to our current student-athletes and future recruits is that being a Tiger impacts your life well past the time spent on the basketball court.” – Cuonzo Martin

“To the Finish Line” is the tagline of the coming season and what fans will be able to hang their hats on. To me, those four words echo who Cuonzo Martin is. He’s going to work, compete until the clock says 0:00, and win or lose with class, . That’s how Mizzou looked against Kansas, competing ’til the very end in what was, ultimately, a losing effort.

For me, I was even more excited for this team, not only by how they performed, but because they played a style that fits the level of talent. Mizzou is a top five team in the SEC, they’ll be in the conversation come March, and this team has all the ability and intangibles to make a run if they’re playing their best basketball come February.

It all depends on how they handle the inexperience, the adversity, and the marathon that is the college basketball season. They do that, they win 20+ games and are dancing in March.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite John Wooden quotes that, for me, sums up what Mizzou fans can rally behind.

Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are. Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.”