I am an unabashed Mizzou Hoops fan, and always have been. You know this if you’ve ever glanced at my twitter or read a word I’ve written for Rock M, or just listened to me talk in everyday conversation— I always find a reason to bring up Mizzou Basketball. I have supported this team through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s why it’s so great to see everything finally coming together right now. Veteran leadership, great culture, stingy defense, ultimate buy-in, and to top it all off, we have perhaps one of the best humans ever leading the team. I will tell anyone and everyone, whether they want to hear it or not (they probably don’t, at least not at the frequency I say this), that Cuonzo Martin is the man for this job and we are so very, very lucky to have him at the helm.
So, in my quest to find someone of authority who corroborates my feelings, I sought out RJ Layton, the voice of Mizzou Hoops twitter (and Sports Information Director for Mizzou Men’s Basketball), who was more than willing to speak with me about Cuonzo Martin, the coaching staff, this year’s team and how “the limit does not exist” on why we should root for this Tigers team.
When talking with Layton about the man in charge, he had effusive praise. “You know, you just won’t find a better person (than Martin), and I know people roll their eyes and say I’m biased, but it’s true.” He continued, “I’ve worked for different universities and coaches in all sorts of sports at all levels, and I grew up a son of a coach and even my dad can’t live up to it consistently. And I love my dad.” By now we all know Martin’s story— where he’s come from, his work ethic, what he believes in, and what he values. So it’s only natural he looks for guys like that to join the team and his staff, because he knows what makes a good person, a good player, a good coach.
And a great team he has built. They may not be 5 stars (looking at you, Kentucky), but the value each member of this team brings cannot be understated. Just take a look at the sidelines. You can see it on their faces as they celebrate every moment. This team loves each other. There’s not an ego among them. Watching them interact reminds me of one of my most favorite sports quotes from soccer great, Mia Hamm. “I am a member of the team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion.” This is a TEAM, not a bunch of individuals trying to get theirs. What these guys — X, Tilly, Von, Dru, Mitch, and all the rest — embody is what Coach Martin looks for in recruiting, high character guys who work incredibly hard. “These guys are passionate and want to do the right thing and treat people with respect and dignity. They’re the best group of guys in terms of character that I’ve ever been around,” Layton said.
So, they work hard, they play hard, they’re good people, they’re fun to be around, and they’re finally healthy. Sounds like a winning combination. Layton broadly described the team as “a unique mix of guys who are using basketball as a way out (of tough circumstances), and guys who have been lucky enough to have resources available to them.” He continued, “They’re a family. It’s just a really beautiful microcosm of how society could and should be done.” If that sounds dramatic, so be it, but I agree. And Layton elaborated on what he meant when talking about specific team members.
Just look at Jeremiah Tilmon. “Jeremiah’s been through it all,” Layton said, “And he’s got the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever been around. You see this guy from East St Louis and all that toughness and aggression and he’s like the nicest teddy bear off the court.” And in terms of his growth in his four years in the program, he’s really come along. “As a freshman, Jeremiah was terrified to do press conferences. I mean, it’s like no big deal now. I thought when we did our first preseason presser, he just went in there and just knocked it out of the park. And I was like, ‘Man, look at how far we’ve come in three years.’”
Xavier Pinson comes from a similar background (remember Dave Matter’s phenomenal story on X last December?) and he’s super determined— “his own man,” Layton said. Mitchell Smith assumed a leadership role in his family when his mom passed away (check out Ryan Herrera’s story on him in February), and you can tell he takes that seriously, as well as his leadership role on the team. You watch him out on the court and you can just tell he’s leaving it all out there. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious. “Every team needs a Mitch,” Layton said. “And I honestly don’t know where we’d be without him.”
Then you’ve got the “old soul”, Dru Smith, who didn’t need media training because he “acts like he’s 30 plus years old. He’s already engaged and he’s just this old guy and he’s really intelligent,” and Drew Buggs, the Hawaii grad transfer who already conducts himself as a coach, to the point that he’s referred to as Coach Buggs.
Mark Smith is one of two guys Coach Martin has to almost force out the gym, Layton said. But he’s also “hilarious... a total goofball.” Remember the Ocean Gang thing on twitter? That was all Mark’s doing. He just makes up weird sayings like that all the time.
The other guy Coach Martin has to almost force out of the gym? Javon Pickett. “Javon brings his hard hat and his lunch pail with him everyday, much like Mitch,” Layton said. If you recall, Pickett started every game last year, and this year he’s coming off the bench. It doesn’t matter to Javon though, and Layton calls him the ultimate 6th man. And while he may come across as determined and quiet in the media, he’s got a goofy side, much like that of his gym rat counterpart, Mark Smith.
Speaking of team players, let’s not forget about Torrence Watson, who has really taken a backseat so far this season and has had to adjust. But have you seen this guy? I’ve never seen someone so happy to just be cheering on his teammates from the sideline. That’s because Watson, according to Layton, genuinely loves his teammates, Columbia, the University, and being close to home— in non Covid times, you’d often see his mom and niece at the games. Keep in mind, as Matthew Harris has discussed on Twitter, Martin’s rotations often fluctuate, so I doubt we’ll see Torrence stuck on the bench all season.
Behind Martin, who Layton describes as a “walking content machine,” is a great staff, and this group is certainly no exception. Coach Martin was careful with his hires, Layton said, making sure each coach is committed to the individual player’s success, serving as a resource to them on and off the court. Previous players have referenced these kind acts years after leaving the program, so after talking to Layton, as well as former graduate assistant Nafis Ricks, I thought it would be nice to get to know the assistants as well, as they do so much for the team and we don’t get to hear from them often outside of the occasional post game.
“We have a really fun atmosphere.” Layton said. “Obviously, we work hard, but I really love the whole staff.” Marco Harris has known Coach Martin since they were little kids, he said, so they are basically brothers. They’ve gone through a lot together, and they are “pretty much mirror images of one another” in how they act. Coach Corn (Cornell Mann), Layton said, is a total goofball and keeps everyone on their toes, but he’s also just a really good coach who has won everywhere he’s been and has been to the tourney at every stop— Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Dayton, Iowa State, and Oakland. “All these small schools,” Layton said, “It’s crazy how much that he’s won and has to be one of the most successful assistant coaches I’ve ever seen when you really look at his career.” And Hollender is a big, giant imposing figure, but “he’s a family guy. He has two twin daughters that are adorable that are around a lot, and he’s just a big softy.”
So where does this leave us, Tiger fans? The team is currently ranked (!!!) and expected to finish MUCH higher in the SEC standings than most of the media outlets previously thought (Sam had them 6th in his previews). There are some kinks to work out on the court, and everything hasn’t come together smoothly just yet, but you can’t be anything less than impressed with how the Tigers are doing, especially in tense situations. That is not to say that there won’t be times this season when you, dear reader, want to jump on social media and lament the coaches and players for something you didn’t like (cough-cough, I saw your comments during the Bradley game). There will be things that happen that you don’t like. I am sure of it. However, former Mizzou Hoops graduate assistant, Nafis Ricks, encourages you to remember this before you take to the keyboard.
“Don’t look at these athletes and just look at them as people. Really get to know the Mizzou culture and about Coach Martin and his staff as well. See past the jerseys and see past them as figures on the basketball court get to know who they are. Value their opinions. They still are college athletes and they trying to figure it out like everyone else. Unfortunately their mistakes are on the public platform, so just understand that they’re going through a process; they’re going through a big transition in their lives.I think that’s very, very important.”
Keep calm and M-I-Z, Tigers fans. We have a helluva group to root for.
You can follow RJ Layton on twitter at @RJLayton_ and of course, you should already be following @MizzouHoops and @NafisRicks (from my previous story with him).