Signing day was sedate around the basketball offices at Mizzou Arena.
Across the country, prospects scribbled signatures and shipped paperwork to eager coaches looking to make word formal bond. In Columbia, coach Cuonzo and the Tigers were waiting for a lone pledge, post Jordan Wilmore, to ink his letter of intent for a muted end to what many fans envisioned as a transformative 2020 class.
When the recruiting cycle kicked off 18 months ago, MU looked poised to be a prime suitor for a trio of top-50 players: Cam’Ron Fletcher, Caleb Love and Josh Christopher. Aside from those grand plans, Cuonzo Martin had viable options two hours to the east in Davion Bradford, Luke Kasubke and Ryan Kalkbrenner were bonafide high-major targets.
With the exception of Christopher, whose courtship will linger into spring, each signed elsewhere on Wednesday.
Expecting all three of MU’s prime targets to cast their lot with Martin might have been unrealistic, but the outcome is still sobering. This was a year where Martin and his assistant coaches took big swings, which naturally breeds disappointment now. That’s only natural.
Still, I’d avoid the temptation to label the cycle an abject failure — at least for the time being. Here’s why.
I get it: You’re frustrated MU didn’t land a big fish.
The past two years have also been ripe with possibilities: Love, Fletcher, Courtney Ramey, and E.J. Liddell. Any one of them would have been a cornerstone. Ultimately, they picked top-15 programs in Texas, Ohio State, North Carolina and Kentucky.
You’ve also heard this verse and chorus from us: Until Mizzou stops oscillating between simply mediocre and historically putrid, the Tigers’ pitch carries a degree of risk that a blue-chip prospect doesn’t need to take on.
There’s also an outside chance for Martin to reverse the narrative.
Christopher remains uncommitted, and the powerful slasher is slow-playing his recruitment. So far, he’s taken just one official visit — a high-publicity trek to Howard, one the nation’s more prominent HBCUs. Last week, Rivals reported additional itineraries are being ironed out for later this winter, starting with a trip to Michigan next weekend.
At the moment, UCLA is forecasted as the leader for Christopher, while Arizona State has his older brother on its roster. Can the Tigers make up ground? I’m skeptical. But Martin and his program have time to make a compelling case on the floor.
Zoom out, and you’ll see Mizzou’s success in St. Louis.
While Martin is still waiting on his next high-profile commitment, he’s found success where predecessors have failed: piping regional talent toward Boone County.
Six members of the roster hail from St. Louis or Kansas City, including three who were rated as top-150 talents in 247 Sports’ composite index. Over the past four recruiting cycles, which includes the spring of 2017, no other program has been as successful pulling players out of nearby recruiting grounds.
It’s a testament to Martin’s inside-out approach to rehabilitating a moribund program.
Since 2017, the state’s two metro areas have churned out 16 top-150 players, which sounds bountiful until you considered each is a disputed border town. To keep players home, MU has to elbow out Illinois, Kansas State, Iowa, Creighton and St. Louis. And that’s without blue-bloods parachuting in for the likes of Ramey, Liddell, Love, Fletcher and Jayson Tatum.
It’s one thing to get beat out by the sport’s upper crust, but quite another when regional rivals pillage players Landry Shamet, Xavier Sneed, OG Anunoby and Tyler Cook. Since Martin’s hiring, MU’s been able to halt the outflow of talent.
That’s particularly true in St. Louis, its suburban collar and across the river in the Metro East — terrain that’s been home to 10 top-80 players since 2017. It’s also had remarkable depth, with almost an equal tally of prospects ranked between No. 100 and No. 250 by 247Sports.
Given Martin’s background, an eastward slant was always likely. Skimming the chart, you can see MU’s approach reaped dividends with Jeremiah Tilmon, Mark Smith, Torrence Watson and Mario McKinney Jr. Setting aside his modest recruiting ranking, Javon Pickett, who was No. 292 nationally, has also been a quality local pick-up.
The St. Louis Pipeline | Top-250 Prospects — 2017-2020
|Northwest Florida (JUCO)
And which school isn’t on the list? Illinois.
Martin’s capitalized on a turbulent stretch for the Illini, landing Tilmon and in the aftermath of John Groce’s dismissal. He also scored a coup when Mark Smith sought a clean slate after he struggled to fit with Brad Underwood’s scheme and temperament in Champaign.
So how do you explain striking out in St. Louis this year?
Should Mizzou be considered a victim of its success? I wouldn’t go that far, but the early traction it found in St. Louis created unique parameters for the 2020 class.
Consider the case of Chaminade’s Luke Kasubke, who signed with Kansas State. Last spring, he was one of MU’s earliest offers, using the grassroots season to undercut the notion he was simply a catch-and-shoot threat. Yet the Tigers already had a trio of four-year wings in Smith, Watson and Pickett on the roster. Instead, Fletcher and Christopher, who are two of the more gifted downhill players in this class, were the priority.
Yet Kasubke wasn’t the biggest source of ire.
Shoring up frontcourt depth was another priority, and MU focused on a troika of big men: Kalkbrenner, Bradford and John Hugley.
In Kalkbrenner’s case, every program was getting a late start, considering the Trinity Catholic center was a relative unknown before running with Mac Irvin Fire this spring. Trinity coach Jeff McCaw told me in May he’d pitched his big man to regional programs, but most of them bided their time. By early August, Illinois, who was labeled the earlier leaders, was nixed. Mizzou and SLU didn’t make the final cut, either.
A lingering debate, though, will probably play out over the next several years as to whether MU should have waited out Bradford instead of taking Wilmore. To me, the frustration stems from the anxiety that arose as MU fans watched the recruiting board clear out. In September, the Mehlville product looked like the Tigers’ final shot at scoring a top-150 player, one who had also been on campus for an official visit.
Instead, the staff let Wilmore commit just a week after Bradford was in town. After the fact, a source told us that MU’s coaches placed similar grades on both big men, and Wilmore, whose offer list is modest, was clearly sold. Meanwhile, Bradford was still mulling between the Tigers and Kansas State, while also taking a visit to Kansas for Night at the Phog.
I’ve held off weighing in for the simple matter that I haven’t seen recent film of Wilmore or watched him live. I doubt anyone wringing their hands has seen him, either.
What’s also been drowned out is the fact that all three players will need multiple years to develop. McCaw told me that Kalkbrenner may not reach his peak until he’s a junior. Three of Bradford’s coaches lauded how he’s transformed his body, improved his passing and expanded his face-up game. Yet they all said it will take several years in a college program to put all the pieces together.
In other words, none of them are likely going to be focal points as freshmen. Yes, MU didn’t land a solidly rated prospect, but none of us can predict the opportunity cost of Bradford joining Kasubke in Manhattan.
OK, but has Mizzou neglected Kansas City?
The short answer: No.
The more nuanced response, though, involves supply and timing. First, Kansas City’s pipeline has ebbed when it comes to highly-rated recruits. While St. Louis has been teeming with them, the western side of the state only produced four top-150 prospects. Meanwhile, the average recruit checks in a 279th in 247Sports’ composite — roughly 130 places behind the St. Louis.
Given recruiting’s cyclical nature, the balance appears to be shifting, but there hasn’t been a plethora of options for Martin.
The Kansas City Pipeline | Top 150 Prospects — 2016-2020
Circumstances haven’t always worked in Mizzou’s favor, either.
The Tigers did offer Jeremiah Robinson-Earl but ultimately concentrated on Liddell, Malik Hall and Tray Jackson in its search for a combo forward. In the case of Ochai Agbaji, the guard didn’t burst onto the scene until his senior season at Oak Park and several months after MU scooped up Watson. That spring, they secured the Smiths — Dru and Mark — on the transfer market.
Then there’s the case of Christian Braun. As we wrote last summer, injuries hobbled him during the grassroots season, and he didn’t garner interest from power-conference programs until a breakout at the Peach Jam. MU did toss its hat in the ring, but its backcourt was already crowded by Smith, Pickett, Watson and K.J. Santos. The staff was also close to sewing up McKinney.
The 2021 class is a better barometer for Mizzou.
For all the emphasis placed on the 2020 class, Missouri only had a couple of scholarships to fill and an acute need at one position. That’s not the case in 2021. Instead, the shopping list is a little more extensive.
At a minimum, MU will likely face replacing Dru Smith, Mark Smith, and Axel Okongo after next season. The number of open scholarships will grow to five if Tilmon and Mitchell Smith also exhaust their eligibility. And none of us can predict transfers or the decision to pursue a professional career. If the Tigers have to fill a handful of slots, they may need a point guard, combo guard and three front court pieces.
That roster retooling will unfold at a time when the state’s pipeline has ebbed. Outside of Tamar Bates and Anton Brookshire, MU hasn’t hosted any other in-state prospects from the 2021 class. Reviewing early offers shows the program casting its glance around the midwest to Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Nebraska.
Will MU coax prospects like Pierre Brooks II or Jaden Akins to leave Michigan and join its backcourt? How viable are their chances with a coveted combo guard like Hunter Sallis? Meanwhile, combo forward Bryce Hopkins, who took an unofficial visit several weeks ago, has already settled on Louisville.
As Mizzou’s current core matures, Martin faces the task of going outside the state’s borders to find the next generation. While he’s scored commitments from five-star prospects such as the Porter brothers, Robert Hubbs III, Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, Martin’s model hinges on identifying and developing multi-year players.
Steady Improvement | Cuonzo Martin Recruiting History
|Robert Hubbs (No. 20)
|Jaylen Brown (No. 4)
|Michael Porter Jr. (No. 2)
|Michael Porter Jr. (No. 2)
History suggests we shouldn’t look at the upper tier of recruiting rankings, either. At Tennessee, Cal and Missouri, roughly 62 percent of high-school products who committed to Martin were rated lower than 150th nationally and half didn’t crack the top 200 of 247Sports’ composite.
The hypothesis behind Martin’s hiring was that circumstances hampered building durable programs at Cal and Tennessee. At Missouri, he had the local connections, facilities and budget to reach his potential. Next year will mark Martin’s longest stint at any coaching stop, and test the logic underlying athletic director Jim Sterk’s decision.
How he fares on the recruiting trail might be the first bit of data that tells us whether the East St. Louis native will have some longevity.