We weren’t sure how long it would take for Jim Sterk to find his guy, but apparently his top target from the start was Cuonzo Martin.
The Tigers’ last game finished late in the night on Thursday evening. Prior to that time, Sterk had not yet met with any candidates. But he had pinpointed a few top targets who he felt could fit into his vision for what Missouri basketball would be. The man he felt would fit that vision the most was Martin, the 45-year-old coach at Cal.
A few days ago, Sterk boarded a flight to Oakland and returned knowing he had his guy. Cuonzo was known to be looking for a path to get back closer to home in the Midwest, and Sterk provided him the path home.
East St. Louis is just 126 miles away from Columbia. The blue-collar, Midwestern attitude is pervasive in Martin’s teams and style of play. He was raised on some tough streets and played for a tough coach in college in Gene Keady at Purdue.
The hard-nosed Keady found a perfect student in Martin, a stern, consistent leader who took the top defensive assignment on a team that featured a top five NBA draft pick in Glenn Robinson. Martin returned to Purdue as an assistant after playing professionally, and he worked his way up the bench before moving on to Missouri State.
Talked to Gene Keady, Cuonzo Martin's mentor. Says Mizzou got "whole ball of wax" with Zo. "Best leader I ever had in 50 years of coaching."— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) March 15, 2017
From there, most of us know the story:
- He turned around Missouri State and won coach of the year in the Missouri Valley, beating Gregg Marshall and Wichita State along the way.
- He parlayed that success into the Tennessee job, taking over a crashed-and-burned program where Bruce Pearl had just been issued a show-cause. Tennessee fans never warmed to Martin, and he parlayed a Sweet 16 run into a job with Cal.
- The high at Cal was getting a 4-seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament, but the academic standards instated at Cal seemed to lead to some struggles in maintaining the recruiting levels he reached when he landed Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown within his first year.
Martin was supposedly looking to return home. Sterk opened the door, flashed a fairly hefty contract, and brought him back to the Midwest.
So why does Sterk think Martin is the right guy to lead Mizzou Basketball into its next chapter? Well let’s start by talking about those roots.
St. Louis Unlocked?
There’s no secret about Missouri’s struggles to find secure footing in St. Louis. A few weeks ago, as Missouri was in the heart of its latest long losing streak, I had a conversation with an established St. Louis basketball person. He told me he didn’t know how Mizzou would be able to find that footing on the east side of the state with what Travis Ford was doing at SLU.
I told him all Mizzou has to do was make the right hire, and they could get back into St. Louis. Quin Snyder tried and had mild success. Mike Anderson didn’t care about St. Louis, and neither did Frank Haith, and both failed. Kim Anderson never had a chance.
After the news about Cuonzo and the Porter situation started to break, I talked to my basketball loving friend again. He had already reversed course. “This is a game changer,” he told me. “Cuonzo changes the way everyone will look at Mizzou.” He even went as far to say that if Cuonzo had been here a few years ago, perhaps Jayson Tatum would be wearing black and gold.
I, of course, stopped him there because I know how hard Duke is to turn down when they come calling. But we agreed that players like Xavier Sneed and Tyler Cook would likely be in Columbia instead of Iowa City and Manhattan, respectively.
The worry was that the irreparable damage caused by the last three seasons (or really, the last decade) had driven away any interest from local talent and the players who surround them. It did with Tatum, Sneed, Cook, and others. And if there was one easy to way to stop the bleeding of the Missouri basketball program, it would be to bring in a guy who could stop the bleeding of players out of the state of Missouri.
Waiting to hear back, but I’d been hearing about Jamal Walker (Illini staff) as somebody to watch https://t.co/nyL1r7hDV8— Sam Snelling (@SamTSnelling) March 15, 2017
With Martin close to landing Michael Porter, Sr., and in turn his sons Michael Jr. and Jontay, the tide might already be turning. If Martin can nab Jamall Walker, the possibility of landing recruits like Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon goes up significantly. Add in C.J. Roberts, and you would have an incredibly talented five-man freshman class that might count as Missouri’s best ever.
A potential staff of Porter, Walker, plus the experienced Tracy Webster, Cuonzo Martin would bring players to Mizzou.
But what style of play can we expect?
There is a signature of a Cuonzo Martin team.
- Offensive Rebounding: Generating more possessions and shots by getting offensive rebounds is usually a good thing, and Martin’s teams do that. All but one Martin team has been over 30 percent in offensive rebound rate.
- Defense: Each team he’s had in power conference play has been a top-100 defensive team, and most have been top-50.
- Controlled tempo: Okay, they play slow. Not, like, Virginia slow, but pretty slow.
Blue collar ... tough ... rebounding ... defense ... if Martin can find more consistency on offense, his teams can be dangerous. The belief, trust, or hope here is that allowing Cuonzo to set his roots in Columbia, and giving him time to build a program close to home, will allow him to hit his stride and finally take off.
Believing in Cuonzo right now is believing that we haven’t seen his apex, that instead we’ve seen him take off from three different runways and start his ascent only to have to circle back and land the plane again.
Now we get to see if Cuonzo can take off at Missouri and elevate the program to the cruising altitude it’s never seen before.