With Border War revival news making headlines Monday and the beginning of the season on the horizon, Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin met with media members Thursday morning to discuss the MU/KU rivalry, updates on the team’s newcomers and more.
Border War makes a comeback
If you haven’t heard by now, we’ll say it one more time: Missouri and Kansas will be renewing the Border War for six straight seasons, beginning with a meeting Dec. 12, 2020, at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
When that game happens, it will have been well over eight years since the last regular season meeting between the schools. The failure to renew the rivalry in that time had a lot to do with ill will over the Tigers’ move to the Southeastern Conference, with Jayhawks coach Bill Self being among those most vocally against it.
But two years ago, Missouri and Kansas held an exhibition at the Sprint Center to raise money for hurricane relief. Though Self was still adamant at the time that the Jayhawks would only play the Tigers if it benefited his program, there was talk that tensions between the schools were finally beginning to cool.
When MU athletic director Jim Sterk reached out to congratulate Jeff Long on taking the same job at KU in July 2018, the ball finally got rolling toward bringing the Border War back.
“A lot of credit to Jim Sterk for making it happen, but it wasn’t like a call was made on Monday and it happened Tuesday,” Martin said. “There’s been a lot of work behind-the-scenes, and Jim was really aggressive in making it happen.”
Martin doesn’t have much personal experience in the rivalry with the “Showdown for Relief” being the only time he’s been involved in a game, but he understands how important these matchups will be to Missouri fans.
Martin said, though he would like to think that every game is as important to the fans as any others, he knows that the work put in and the long wait in between meetings will make the atmosphere electric.
“There was a lot of work behind-the-scenes to make that happen, and I would say there was a lot of talk about that game would probably never take place again,” Martin said. “... I think our fans should be excited, just like they should be excited, in my opinion, for every game that we play here because it’s Mizzou basketball.”
Updates on Okongo, freshmen
Martin also gave updates on a slew of new Missouri players.
Axel Okongo, a 7-foot transfer from Northwest College in Wyoming, had a cloud surrounding his eligibility. Though transfer rules wouldn’t bar him from playing in the 2019-20 season, the Tigers didn’t know if Okongo would be eligible beyond this year.
But Thursday, Martin informed the media that Okongo would indeed be around for an extra year.
“He’s a two-year guy,” Martin said.
Freshman guard Mario McKinney Jr. and forwards Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown all come into this season with some question marks. With McKinney, the questions revolve around his potential playing time with other guards and wings already firmly entrenched in Martin’s system, while with Jackson and Brown, they revolve around their ability to fit into the rotation at the 4-spot right away.
While the three have yet to see the floor outside of practice, Martin wants to see them keep adjusting to this level as Missouri gets closer to the beginning of the regular season.
“I just think that, with any freshman, whatever growth is, whatever time it is, however you adjust to game situations, I think all three of them can safely say that the speed and the physicality of this game at this level is probably the biggest difference,” Martin said.
A couple of coaches changed positions last week, and Martin addressed those changes Thursday.
Marco Harris has been promoted to the third full-time assistant on Martin’s staff, while Michael Porter Sr. moves into Harris’ old position of director of player development. Harris has worked with Martin for almost a decade, as he was also on Martin’s staff as director of operations at Cal (2014-17) and Tennessee (2011-14).
“I think he’s earned it more than anything,” Martin said. “... He’s been with us for years, and he’s put the work in. He was on the grassroots circuit as far as coaching AAU programs, high school programs in the state of Oklahoma, so he’s put the time into it.”
Porter, on the other hand, will now focus more on “enhancing the student-athlete experience while helping ensure academic success and consistent community service involvement.”
Though Porter won’t be very directly involved with X’s and O’s, Martin said he’s “still vital to what we do.”
SEC poll surprise
Last week, the SEC released its preseason media poll, and voters picked Missouri to finish 13th in the conference.
Those who have paid closer attention to the Tigers this offseason were surprised, including Martin himself. Missouri finished 12th in the conference last season, finishing SEC play at 5-13, just ahead of Georgia (2-16) and Vanderbilt (0-18). But with the core of this team having another full offseason to gel, expectations have varied among national media.
Martin’s expectations for his team align more with the KenPom and AP rankings, and he said he’d be surprised if his team ended up closer to the SEC’s predictions.
“If we finish 13th in this league, then this will be one of the best leagues to ever lace them up in all of college basketball,” Martin said.