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Cuonzo Martin eyeing 2020 as Missouri’s breakout

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With Tigers stuck in mediocrity, Martin sets sights on the future

Tonight, Missouri will host the Kentucky Wildcats at Mizzou Arena. As it does every year, each chance to play Kentucky offers fans and players a multitude of opportunities: to see (and play against) future NBA stars; to notch a marquee (and sometimes resume-building) win against one of the great modern programs and coaches; and to tell a good story about the time you beat one of college basketball’s blue bloods.

Believe it or not — Louisville fans, don’t read this — all fans aspire to be like Kentucky, or maybe a similar program like Duke. Everyone wants to root for the team everyone else hates. It feels good to be the heel. Jealousy breeds contempt, isn’t that what they always say?

Well BREAKING NEWS but the Missouri Tigers aren’t there. Even in the glory days of Storming’ Norman, the Tigers were never at a level of prestige that sniffed Kentucky. And if they ever want to begin getting there, it’ll take an extended seat atop the Southeastern Conference throne. Cuonzo Martin thinks that could happen as early as next year.

...while Missouri’s men’s basketball coach is currently focused on finishing his second season strong, he hasn’t held back from telling commentators that the Tigers will be in contention for the Southeastern Conference title next season despite their current 12-12 record that includes just three conference wins.

“When you’re healthy you have a chance,” he said. “You have to have good guards. I think we’re moving toward that. Your key guys have to be healthy. And then you go from there. I like where we’re going as a program.

This has been a frustrating season for Tiger fans, even if we mostly maintain proper perspective from the recent days of Kim Anderson. As Dave Matter points out, a weekend loss to Ole Miss showcased familiar patterns of defeat to a Rebel program that has found new life under Kermit Davis.

Saturday was a déjà vu kind of day for Missouri at Ole Miss. Too many turnovers, too little Jeremiah Tilmon. It’s the formula of doom for the Tigers.

There were positives to take away from a loss that once threatened to be closer to 20-plus points than single-digits. Namely, the Tigers had their way with the Rebels on the boards.

Missouri pulled down 37 rebounds, 13 of which were on the offensive end. Though the Tigers are ranked just No. 12 in the Southeastern Conference in rebounds per game, they have outrebounded their opponents in seven of their 12 SEC games.

As Teague would point out soon after, Kentucky is one of the league’s best rebounding teams, so the Tigers will have to bring that strong effort tonight if they want to have a realistic shot at pulling the upset. Even that may not be enough against a Wildcat team that just knocked Tennessee off the NCAA perch.

Even still, it’s not unreasonable to think it could happen. The Tigers often look much better than their 12-12 record — “if only they could stop turning the ball over/Jeremiah Tilmon could stop fouling/our best players stopped getting hurt.” It takes a rare combination of elite talent and luck to reach the mountaintop these days, but sometimes all you need is lightning strike to become the story of the evening.

Maybe the Tigers do have a better team than their record indicates... maybe not. Tuesday will afford them another opportunity to prove they do. Hopefully, Cuonzo is right, and it won’t be long before Missouri returns to its rightful place as a consistent challenger to the pedestal. Maybe not a favorite, but a challenger nonetheless.


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