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What lessons can we draw from the Class of 2021?

Mizzou’s five-man group is laden with high-upside prospects that also meet the baseline established by the program and Cuonzo Martin.

Once Yaya Keita committed to Missouri in early September, a three-week dash to fill an extra-large recruiting class came to an end.

The Tigers weren’t alone, either.

Plenty of other staffs found themselves scrambling as the coronavirus pandemic nuked the traditional recruiting calendar. It nixed sneaker-backed grassroots circuits, ushered in a never-ending dead period and forced many prospects to consider the offers they had in hand. Expanding a recruiting board meant squinting to read numbers on jerseys over glitchy livestreams.

Ebb and flow. That was recruiting for the Class of 2021, a cycle in which Cuonzo Martin needed to fill six vacancies and gird a roster for a healthy amount of churn. Now, as signing day arrives, the Tigers are set to fill five openings with Keita, Anton Brookshire, Sean Durugordon, Trevon Brazile, and Kaleb Brown.

How the program reached that endpoint was circuitous.

First, its board didn’t start expanding until last July, and early on, MU turned its sights north to a trio in Michigan: Pierre Brooks, Jaden Akins, and Kobe Bufkin. All three, though, blossomed and boosted their stock, becoming priorities for in-state powers. Once that happened, prying any one of them loose from the Mitten became arduous.

So, the Tigers pivoted to Kansas City and prioritized Tamar Bates, a combo guard from the state line’s westside. Over the winter, Keita emerged as a bonafide option in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, Brookshire and his polished skillset became enticing as he grew and filled out his lithe frame.

Like many of its peers, Mizzou chewed through tape in the spring to identify talent coming off stellar high school seasons: Durugordon, David Joplin, and James Graham III. In May, Brookshire, now standing 6-foot-3 and on the fringes of the top 150 nationally, pulled the trigger. And then the waiting began.

Slowly, Bates and Joplin drifted into Texas’ orbit, but as we’ve noted, the staff rallied to reel in Brown, Durugordon, Brazile, and Keita in a short period. There’s also a tinge of irony with this class. After spending most of the cycle looking afield—especially the upper Midwest—Martin and Co. wound up signing three in-state products. It’s a testament to how developmental trajectories are never linear and to a staff flexible enough to spot opportunities, especially in Brazile’s whirlwind courtship.

Mizzou Basketball | Class of 2021

Name Ht/Wt Pos. City State HS Rivals 247Sports ESPN Grade
Name Ht/Wt Pos. City State HS Rivals 247Sports ESPN Grade
Kaleb Brown 6-6/218 CF Huntsville AL Lee NR NR NR NR
Anton Brookshire 6-3/155 CG Springfield MO Kickapoo NR NR 89 0.9164
Yaya Keita 6-9/225 Post St. Louis MO DeSmet 144 NR NR 0.8999
Sean Durugordon 6-6/216 Wing New York NY Putnam Science Academy NR NR NR 0.8899
Trevon Brazile 6-8/180 CF Springfield MO Kickapoo NR NR NR 0.8578

Put simply, it’s a group that needs to simmer on low heat for a bit.

You can also lodge an obvious quibble: there is no instant-impact player among the group. As we’ve often said, MU will have to hunt for that type of talent in the spring signing period, preferably a ready-made ball-handler and a proven scorer. Doing so helps Martin hedge risk for a roster that’s going to skew young.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Florida State vs Gonzaga
Missouri’s landed high-end talent over the past decade. Unfortunately, many of those players, including Johnathan Williams III, thrived elsewhere.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

So, how does this class compare to its predecessors?

Way back in the spring, I dove deep to explore the impact of roster continuity for Mizzou since joining the SEC. That data proves handy in sketching out the caliber of player who typically pledges to the Tigers. Now, our analysis here isn’t complicated. It’s simply creating a normal distribution and some descriptive statistics.

As you can tell, the instability and inconsistency in Columbia led to recruiting swerving all over the road. Even for a steady presence such as Martin, the results have been decidedly mixed— ranging from a top-10 class upon his arrival to one of the weakest among high-majors last year.

Average Returns | Mizzou Basketball Recruiting (2012-2021)

Class Count Avg. Rating Std. Dev. Median Std. Error
Class Count Avg. Rating Std. Dev. Median Std. Error
2012 7 0.8892 0.0496 0.875 0.0187
2013 7 0.9374 0.0506 0.9689 0.0191
2014 6 0.9422 0.0616 0.9752 0.0251
2015 6 0.8662 0.0394 0.865 0.0161
2016 7 0.8764 0.0316 0.8687 0.0142
2017 8 0.9308 0.0619 0.9266 0.0234
2018 6 0.899 0.0554 0.8814 0.0248
2019 4 0.9221 0.0435 0.9185 0.0251
2020 3 0.8502 0.0221 0.8422 0.0127
2021 5 0.891 0.0247 0.8949 0.0123
Total 59 0.904 0.0535 0.894 0.0025

Rather than get bogged down in comparing individual years, I’d instead focus my attention on the bottom line. The typical recruit (0.9040) rating is on the borderline of the top 150 in the composite index, which makes sense given that MU trawls the range between Nos. 80 and 260 in those rankings. The upper bound is Mark Smith (No. 79) and capped at the other end by K.J. Santos (No. 259).

There’s nothing wrong with searching those wares, either. However, the real question is whether Mizzou concentrates the bulk of its talent acquisition to No. 75 and No. 150 in the composite— or four-star to highly rated three-star players. The working theory is obvious. You’re landing talented players who are also more prone to stick around and form a veteran nucleus. In the process, you might unearth and develop a player who overperforms their rating.

There’s also ample evidence it can court top-end talents. Over the past decade, 11 players rated better than 75th joined the prospect. The breakdown comes in retaining them. Of that group, seven signees transferred or got the boot. Only one, Jeremiah Tilmon, remains, and his career has been defined by a frustrating brew of injury, foul trouble, and inconsistency.

The same problem bedevils the program when it reels in talent from the tier I mentioned above: five of eight players left the program early. And Mark Smith and Torrence Watson haven’t become steady cogs in the machine. Think about this: the only top-150 players to graduate—Jordan Barnett and Alex Oriakhi—arrived via transfer and played just three combined seasons.

It does little good to acquire foundational talent when you can’t hold on to it or turn it into reliable production.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Alabama
Junior wing Torrence Watson fits the profile of the recruit Mizzou needs to rely on.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Is Cuonzo Martin underperforming on the trail?

That’s a loaded question, right?

Before I share more data, let me be clear that a segment of MU fans misconstrued Martin’s template for roster building. Admittedly, the 2017 class did a lot to skew those perceptions and had injury luck not eroded that foundation, maybe Martin winds up keeping local talent like E.J. Liddell, Cam’Ron Fletcher or Caleb Love from inking with blue bloods. However, it’s time to leave that parallel universe behind.

Let’s deal with reality, shall we?

In that realm, Martin represents a middle way. Frank Haith showed he could land upper-tier talent — Jonathan Williams III, Jakeenan Gant, Namon Wright and Wes Clark — that often up finished up elsewhere. Obviously, Kim Anderson sits at the other pole. After Montaque Gill-Caesar inspired early hope, the former Norm Stewart assistant quickly fizzled. The recruits who stuck around—Kevin Puryear, Reed Nikko, Jordan Geist and Mitchell Smith—settled mostly into reserve roles after the last regime change.

When we narrow our aperture and look at the prep prospects each coach has signed, it’s easy to see how Martin splits the difference.

High (School) Expectations | Missouri Recruiting (2012-2021)

Coach Count Avg. Rating Std. Dev. Median Std. Error
Coach Count Avg. Rating Std. Dev. Median Std. Error
Haith 7 0.9403 0.0454 0.9689 0.0171
Anderson 13 0.8779 0.0448 0.8698 0.013
Martin 20 0.9099 0.053 0.8999 0.0129
Total 40 0.9051 0.0528 0.8965 0.0025

After his first glittering class, Martin reverted to a standard chassis for his program: developmental prospects. The rub is whether Martin’s reverting to MU’s baseline or merely operating at the same one he used at his last high-major stops.

When you compare his handiwork here to stops in Knoxville and Berkeley, eerily similar results appear. However, the expectation was that proximity to his native St. Louis might help the Tigers solve a decades-long problem of extracting the area’s best talent. Clearly, that hasn’t panned out. At the same time, those players have never been truly integral components to his prior rebuilds.

Steady State | Cuonzo Martin — Recruiting

School Seasons Mean Std. Dev Median Std. Error
School Seasons Mean Std. Dev Median Std. Error
Tennessee 3 0.8782 0.0576 0.8557 0.0174
California 3 0.9127 0.085 0.9128 0.0347
Missouri 4 0.9099 0.053 0.8999 0.0129
247 Sports

Conceptualize the class in this way: swapping out Kaleb Brown for Tamar Bates would elevate the average recruit rating to 0.9017. That’s nearly identical to the benchmark for the past decade. It would also place the Tigers on the cusp of the top 25 nationally. Rather than fixate on that miss, it’s better to focus on what Martin accrued. There’s a pair of borderline top-150 prospects in Brookshire and Keita, a rangy defender in Durugordon, and a fast-rising combo forward in Brazile.

Two questions matter moving forward with the 2021 class in the fold:

  • Can Martin, the staff, and its player development model capitalize on the long-term potential each player offers?
  • Will this group form the kind of nucleus that proves attractive for impact talents such as Aidan Shaw or Tarris Reed, Jr.?

Mizzou’s shown it can cobble together attractive classes every so often, but its core task remains unchanged: identify undervalued talent and max it out. If the past decade imparted any lessons, it doesn’t matter what rating is attached to a player when the staff cannot retain or develop it.

Once injuries napalmed the Porter Plan, MU defaulted to Martin’s tried-and-true method, but even then, the results with players such as Watson and Tilmon undercut that approach. Now, with the roster about ready to experience a hefty amount of churn, Martin has one season left with his original core to shore up political capital before starting the process anew.

Combo forward Tarris Reed, a priority target in the Class of 2022, is on the borderline for the caliber of player Mizzou typically lands.
Randy Kemp

What can this tell us about the Class of 2022?

A year out from signing day, I only feel confident with one statement: Shaw, a wing out Blue Valley, and Reed, a combo forward from Chaminade, are priorities.

That’s not bold, either. Both took unofficial visits to Columbia last fall and have said in interviews that Martin’s worked diligently to nurture a relationship. Moving forward, the question will be whether their development and improvement draw in programs that typically win recruiting battles against Mizzou.

For example, Shaw is rated 48th nationally by Rivals and 247 Sports and has an offer from Kansas in hand. If the 6-8, 190-pound junior continues on his current trajectory, the Jayhawks won’t be the lone blue blood vying for his pledge. And then there’s Reed, whose place in the rankings has been more static but seen high-profile programs enter the picture this fall: Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, and Florida.

Now, that won’t prove daunting to Martin and his staff. Since taking over the program, they’ve made one operating procedure clear: they keep recruiting top local talent until a recruit tells them otherwise. So long as Shaw and Reed hear Martin out, the Tigers will be dogged.

As for the other 14 prospects with offers, we can narrow our focus. The standard deviations for composite ratings of players signed by MU and Martin are essentially the same — 0.85 to 0.95 — and cuts that list in half. Next, we use scholarship charts too (loosely) forecast positions of need for a class. In the case of 2022, the Tigers will likely need a wing, a combo forward, and a pair of ball-handlers.

Targeted Approach | Missouri Basketball Offers — Class of 2022

Name Ht/Wt. Pos. City State Rivals 247 ESPN Rating Rating Rating
Name Ht/Wt. Pos. City State Rivals 247 ESPN Rating Rating Rating
Tarris Reed 6-7/210 CF St. Charles MO 77 85 NR 0.9515 0.9515 0.9515
Demarion Watson-Saulsberry 6-6/175 Wing Minneapolis MN 118 142 NR 0.9482 0.9482 0.9482
Prince Aligbe 6-7/225 Wing Minneapolis MN 56 NR NR 0.9411 0.9411 0.9411
Fletcher Loyer 6-5/180 Wing Fort Wayne IN 135 133 NR 0.9332 0.9332 0.9332
Avery Brown 6-3/180 PG Beacon Falls CT NR 100 NR 0.927 0.927 0.927
Jai Smith 6-9/235 CF Syracuse NY 150 150 NR 0.9226 0.9226 0.9226
Trey Pettigrew 6-3/175 CG Oak Park IL NR NR NR 0.8959 0.8959 0.8959

Shaw and Reed tick off two of those boxes and looking over the chart of players that fall in MU’s typical range yields two options at point or combo guard: Avery Brown and Trey Pettigrew. Brown, who is rated 100th nationally by 247 Sports, appears to be the main target for Martin.

Yet the board is also likely going to expand. While Martin tends to operate in stealth mode, you can pick up patterns based on how MU extends offers. Usually, the program makes anywhere between 25 and 35 offers in a given cycle, with half going out before prospects start their junior seasons. Typically, members of that group have been high-profile local targets or top-30 recruits nationally, where extending an offer is just the cost of doing business.

Put another way, history tells us the Tigers’ pool should double in size by next spring.

Keep in mind, too, that the environment to evaluate talent has been daunting. At the same time, a recruiting dead period has made it impossible for recruits to see the program’s up close. Meanwhile, at least in Missouri, prep practices are just getting started, and who knows what form the regular seasons will take.

It all adds up to an environment where late-bloomers are likely to emerge, and programs will have to react quickly. If that’s the case, the past few months should hearten Mizzou fans. Still, if recent history teaches us anything, it’s likely the players who will ultimately pick the Tigers might not be known to us or the coaches who’ll oversee their development.

In late June, our early appraisal of the class found plenty of options regionally for the Tigers: point guard Robert Martin, combo guard Jalen Quinn, a pair of wings in Jeremiah Talton and Braden Applehans, and some undervalued combo forwards in Taj Manning and Jaylon McDaniel. None of those players hold offers, but their respective composite ratings, which land between 0.85 and 0.90, are in a territory MU has mined before.

The Tigers could also be more aggressive in prowling the transfer market, which has been an abundant source of talent over the last 10 years. With the NCAA likely to ratify a first-time transfer exception in January, a new segment of the market will likely open up, allowing Martin to offer fresh starts to top-draw players disillusioned by their first stop and looking for a better fit. Instead of signing four prep prospects, taking on a high-upside transfer might be a better use of a scholarship opening this go-around.