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Cuonzo Martin is a pretty incredible dude

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Here are today’s Mizzou Links.

Mizzou hosts Tennessee tonight at Mizzou Arena. Without any context, that’s a pretty big game — the Tigers need as many big wins as possible as they try to put together a tourney résumé, and at 13th in the KenPom rankings, the Vols are the best team Missouri has faced since West Virginia. They will severely test a Mizzou defense that isn’t up to the level Cuonzo Martin expects to see.

The game tips at 8:00 p.m. CT on SECN. First 1,500 in the door get a poster.

Of course, that does indeed ignore a lot of context. Like the fact that Martin coached for three years at Tennessee. Or the treatment he evidently received in Knoxville.

Tennessee never got over Bruce Pearl. Pearl was fired for lying to NCAA investigators and was slapped hard with a show-cause penalty, the NCAA’s tool for making a coach toxic to hire or keep on staff. But when the Vols fired him, there was a booster revolt all the same. He had so ingratiated himself within the fan base that a good portion of said base was willing to deal with the consequences of keeping him. (As a Tennessee friend of mine pointed out, the fact that he so completely won over Pat Summitt made him the prince of Tennessee athletics to many eyes.)

That portion of the base certainly wasn’t ready to give some new guy a shot. And when Cuonzo Martin didn’t immediately improve Tennessee’s basketball fortunes — he didn’t really make them worse, but he didn’t make them better — a “Bring Back Bruce” petition began to circulate. Naturally, it was bolstered by the most noxious, toxic Tennessee personality in the national sports landscape.

This was the definition of a no-win situation for Martin from basically his first day on the job. He was quite far from perfect in his performance — we’ll get to that — and as my Tennessee friend put it, that seemed to allow Tennessee fans to lower the filter a bit. Some of the vitriol directed his way took on a racist bent.

Martin himself acknowledged that things just didn’t seem right for him in Knoxville.

Cuonzo’s three-year stint in Knoxville included a 2014 run to the NCAA Sweet 16, but not before the fans’ love for disgraced former coach Bruce Pearl resulted in nearly 40,000 signatures in an on-line petition calling for Martin’s removal. Those close to him wonder if race was a factor, considering the black coach with no hint of scandal was found wanting next to a white man with more baggage than an overbooked overhead.

“Here we’re trying to win and you have a fan base—and not all of them—going against you,” Cuonzo says. “So I was thinking, I really don’t want to win this game for them. Let’s win because of who we are. This is what I go always go back to: Whoever’s against me didn’t grow up in that house with me, and they won’t be put in a casket with me. So it doesn’t really matter what they think.”

That last blurb is from a rather incredible current Sports Illustrated piece on Martin. It is a must-read for the Mizzou universe.

I had to take a couple of different stabs at it because of an early line in the piece: “With the school’s reputation and enrollment gutted by several racial incidents...” I see that, and I automatically recoil. After all the conversations we’ve had over the effect of the boycotts, the number of actual “incidents,” the currently awesome school retention rates, etc., I see a construct like that and assume laziness. You might, too, but fight through it because it’s constructed in full detail later on. This eventually becomes one of the fairer pieces you’ll ever read on the topic.

This is a long piece on Martin’s family history, what Missouri is and isn’t, the effect of the Porter family, etc., etc., etc. It’s great. I’m not even going to blurb it further — just read the whole thing.

It sparked some conversations with the local media, too.

Martin hasn’t read the SI piece but opened up on why he’s here.

Martin downplayed the notion that he accepted the Mizzou job to heal any wounds lingering from the 2015 protests, but with some candid comments for local reporters, Martin made it clear he wants to make lasting contributions to his university, his community and society at large — contributions that transcend the game of basketball, race and politics.

“The most important thing is I took the job because it’s a tremendous opportunity,” Martin said. “Not so much to be close to home (in East St. Louis). It’s a great university. I wanted to be part of it. And not so much what took place in ’15. It’s a great opportunity first and foremost to be around a guy like (athletics director) Jim Sterk, who I think is an exceptional man. All those things matter.”

More:

“We have to give back,” he added, changing his focus toward the point of the Sports Illustrated story. “I said it, and I don’t know if it’s in the article, but I think in everything we do, if we put our youth first in the decisions we make … we’ll have a great country. I think that’s the most important thing, when you put youth first and put all our differences aside.”

Martin said America is an “exceptional” country but it can be where it is “supposed to be when we decide we have a ways to go.”

From the start, Martin has been a really easy guy to admire. I admire him more now than I did this time yesterday.

More Hoops Links:


More Links:

  • Mizzou Wrestling is unbeaten and has been mostly dominant in duals this year. The Tigers have no national title favorite at the moment but are in tremendous shape to qualify at least nine guys for nationals. This is one of Brian Smith’s deeper squads, and that depth has been rewarded with a move from fourth to third in the national rankings.
  • Oh hey, Bud.