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A year and a half in, Cuonzo Martin’s rebuild is exactly where it needs to be

It may be frustrating at times, but recent history suggests Cuonzo Martin’s rebuild at Missouri is right on track.

NCAA Basketball: Morehead State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This may sound crazy, but it seems that results like last Wednesday’s are harder to digest and outcomes like Saturday’s are easier to cling to than in the darkest days of Missouri basketball.

It’s easier than ever to look at the state of the program from a micro-perspective. Since Frank Haith stepped into Columbia in 2011, the long-term view of the program has shifted dramatically from, “finally elite,” to, “floundering in mediocrity,” to, “depths of despair.” That’s a journey across the full spectrum of college basketball relevance in a time span of just six full seasons.

For the better part of that time, it was almost impossible to zero in on the details of Tiger basketball because, frankly, things were so miserable. Which sounds better: focusing on the X’s and O’s of a 20-plus-point massacre — or two... or three — or crying to the heavens above for some form of relief? At least the latter offers some sort of emotional, maybe even spiritual, catharsis.

Call it karma, divine intervention or sheer luck, but things took a yet another drastic turn in the past year and a half. The hiring of Cuonzo Martin provided at least a baseline level of expectations for a program that had none. The arrival of the Porters resuscitated the fan base’s interest levels. Finally, the addition of players like Kassius Robertson and Jeremiah Tilmon — along with returners like Jordan Barnett, Jordan Geist and Kevin Puryear — gave the team a level of talent not seen since Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown patrolled the hardwood of Mizzou Arena.

Last year marked a notable shift in the way Missouri fans looked at Tiger basketball. For the first time in years, it was fun to talk about the details of the game rather than the future. For one, Martin had already proven his ability to take moribund programs from zero to... well, maybe not hero, but to the NCAA bubble at least. It’s also much more enjoyable to talk about a game that comes down to the wire — win or lose — than a continuous stream of blowouts and no-shows.

However, we all knew it couldn’t last, at least not in the interim. Michael Porter Jr. would leave after one year, and the combination of Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett wouldn’t be able to magically find more years of eligibility. For some fans, the presense of a mysterious Mizzou Curse meant Michael and Jontay Porter were doomed to contribute only one combined year of on-court production. It’s some sort of cruel destiny for Missouri fans, they’ll say, thinking back to Tyus Edney streaking down the court as the clock strikes zero.

No, one year removed from the magical 2017-2018 season, and we’re back to where we started — or at least, that’s what some of the more fatalistic Tiger fans would have you think.

No one rebuilds a program in one year. It just isn’t possible. Exceptions to that rule signal one of two things: (1) either the foundation was solid and the management was lacking or (2) a quick fix is mitigating something in need of further repair.

If you’re wanting narrative proof, all it takes is a quick look around the SEC.

SEC Rebuilds

Team Pre-Coach Year Two Pre-Coach Year One Current Coach Year One Second Year Third Year
Team Pre-Coach Year Two Pre-Coach Year One Current Coach Year One Second Year Third Year
Alabama 13-19 19-15 18-15 19-15 20-16*
Arkansas 14-18 18-13 18-14 19-13 22-12
Georgia 19-15 18-15 10-11** n/a n/a
Mississippi State 14-19 13-19 14-17 16-16 25-12
Missouri 10-21 8-24 20-13* 11-9** n/a
Ole Miss 22-14 12-20 14-7** n/a n/a
South Carolina 14-16 10-21 14-18 14-20 17-16
Tennessee 24-13* 16-16 15-19 16-16 26-9*
* signifies a team that made the NCAA Tournament; ** signifies a current record

A few trends emerge when you look at these six programs:

  • All are stuck in a state of arrested development in the years leading up to the current coach. Only one made an NCAA Tournament in the two years prior to the current head coach’s hiring — Cuonzo Martin’s 2013-2014 Tennessee squad.
  • Most have a below-to-average first year. Missouri makes one exception with its Top 5 ranked recruiting class and addition of Kassius Robertson, who would make several All-SEC teams. Ole Miss is currently in the midst of a resurgent year under Kermit Davis, but things aren’t looking too hot in Oxford after a recent skid.
  • Year two isn’t often much better, with none of the teams posting more than 19 wins.
  • Year three, however, marks the turning point. Four of the five programs listed won 20-plus games in their coach’s third year. Two of them went to the NCAA Tournament and the other two got past the first round of the NIT. South Carolina, the only exception, would go on to win 25 and 26 games in the following two years, including a run to the Final Four.

Of course, these numbers don’t tell the whole story about any of these coach’s careers. Rick Barnes and Ben Howland have their teams slated for upper-tier NCAA seeds while Mike Anderson and Avery Johnson have floated on the NCAA bubble for the better portion of their tenures. The jury is still out on Tom Crean at Georgia, though his track record suggests the Bulldogs will become formidable before long.

It’s still useful, though, to look at the timetable for a rebuilding program in the SEC. No program or fan expectations are the same, but gaining perspective helps us take a long-term view of where things could be headed in Columbia, Mo. None of the above programs are blue-bloods, meaning any rebuild will take time, commitment and probably some luck.

For a program without a Final Four on its resume, Missouri fans are a proud breed. Raised on the passionate, physical ball of the Norm Stewart era, most still aren’t used to the fact that turning a program like Missouri into a consistent winner takes hard, time-consuming work.

It may be It’s only the loud vocal minority speaking, but it doesn’t take much effort to notice impatience already stemming for Cuonzo Martin in Columbia.

Again, this isn’t even close to the majority of fans speaking. Most Tiger fans are trusting of Martin, especially after the job he did in his first year. However, we’d all be lying if we said it wasn’t frustrating to see Missouri start 2-6 in conference.

However, context suggests that Missouri is right where it needs to be. Year two of most SEC rebuilds results in mediocrity, while year three represents the leap forward. Even then, Martin took over a program in more disarray than any of his peers. Would you blame him if the ship took four years to completely right?

This isn’t a judgment on Cuonzo Martin’s long-term future with the Tigers. No one is qualified to be doing that yet, even if there are reasons to hope. It is, however, a call to perspective; a call to consider the context.

Cuonzo Martin’s rebuild was always going to take more than two years. At Missouri, a program that doesn’t draw NBA-level talent on a mass scale like the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world, a rebuild would take any coach longer than fans may like.

But until we get to a place where we’re more able take a macro look at the state of Cuonzo Martin’s Missouri Tigers, let’s enjoy the fact that the micro perspective no longer includes eight-win seasons or regular double-digit blowouts. This can make things maddening in the short-term, but the assurance of stability is better than uncertainty.