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Cuonzo Martin can win at Mizzou without five-star recruits

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Cuonzo Martin didn’t land either of the elite talents in St. Louis, but his track record of winning suggests that Missouri will be in good hands even without five-star players.

Missouri v Central Florida Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Yesterday had the potential to be one of Missouri basketball’s biggest days in the past 10 years. It ended up being just another Tuesday.

Those who care to follow basketball recruiting even tangentially knew that Caleb Love wasn’t going to choose Missouri over the University of North Carolina. From the beginning, Love seemingly aspired to play at the legendary school in Chapel Hill. Cuonzo Martin did his best (and it was his best) to convince Love that Columbia could offer a similar experience. But the writing was on the wall after his visit to the coast in late September. And maybe it was from the moment Roy Williams offered.

It’s hard not to talk about Missouri sports and always circle back to the idea of expectations: are they too high or too low in any given year; what’s “fair” to expect; will they ever change? Missouri basketball is certainly the more prestigious of the two revenue sports at Ole Mizzou, but even the biggest of homers would admit that the Tigers are far from blue-blooded. Built on the sweaty back of Norm Stewart, the Missouri program has always been more known for grit than grandeur.

However, the current state of play makes it hard to evaluate just what to expect of Cuonzo Martin as he starts his third year in black and gold. Is the historic ineptitude of the Kim Anderson years enough to pacify fans for another season? How about when it’s compounded with the mediocrity and scandal-ridden tenure of Frank Haith? Martin’s rebuilding job was an epic task from the start, especially considering how it was delayed for a year by the, “Win now, ask questions later,” nature of the 2017-2018 campaign. What could’ve been a year of laying foundation was spent on high hopes that, while rapturous in the moment, seem hollow two years down the line.

Of course, fan confidence in Martin is rooted in the fact that he’s hailed as a successful recruiter. He was able to convince two NBA talents to play in Berkeley for a program that hasn’t had the same “recent” track record of success as Missouri. Even at football-obsessed Tennessee, Martin lured Jarnell Stokes and Robert Hubbs (a five-star recruit at the time!) to suit up in that horrendous orange-yellow.

If you’re counting stars, Martin has already matched those outputs in Columbia, though he gets little credit for the Porter brother commitments. This is seemingly because (A) they would’ve come for anyone not named Kim Anderson, and (B) their overall production as Tigers was, to put it generously, underwhelming. However, he’s lured more four-star recruits to Missouri than at California or Tennessee combined.

The simmering discontent for Martin’s tenure then seems to be based in the fact that, despite his overall success in recruiting, he has so far been unable to land the biggest fish coming out of his home turf. Courtney Ramey, Cam’Ron Fletcher, Caleb Love...

Wait.

[frantically checks notes]

So hang on. Are those the only consensus Top 50 players Cuonzo Martin has missed on in three years of recruiting for the Tigers? Well, then.

The truth is, as long as Missouri is a hotbed for basketball recruiting activity, the Tigers will likely miss more than they hit on big name players. For as much as fans would like to think any one coach can “lock down the borders,” it’s not an argument based in reality, not in a world where schools like UNC, Kentucky and Duke are brands with national platforms. Those teams will nearly always get the guys they really want.

Where does that leave Missouri then? Pretty much the same place as they’ve always been. The jury is still out on whether Cuonzo Martin is the man to take Mizzou Hoops to the next level above the consistent competitiveness of the Stewart days.

However, history shows us that Cuonzo Martin wins wherever he’s at, and he does so in relatively short order. This year, Martin will enter his third season as head coach at Missouri, the same amount of time he spent at Missouri State, Tennessee and California. Despite his reputation as a hopper, though, it certainly seems like he’s here to stay. He’s close to home, is a great representative for the university and is building the program on the backs of three-to-four year players rather than one-and-dones. That’s not to say elite talent wouldn’t be welcomed in the halls of Mizzou Arena. But even when it’s absent, Martin has found ways to win.

It may be a few years before another player like Caleb Love comes along — a player whose bonafides scream elite and whose blood is destined to be blue (Tar Heel or otherwise). However, if Cuonzo Martin can do what he’s always done — win and win consistently — then maybe the next time this decision gets made, there will be something other than hometown pride that he can pitch.