COVID-19 has been the brakes on a Missouri season that, so far, may be the most promising of Cuonzo Martin’s tenure. It’s also created an opportunity for reflection while we patiently wait for basketball activities to resume.
To be clear, what follows isn’t a predictive metric of how the remainder of the 2020-2021 season will unfold. It’s also not a diagnostic report on what may or may not ail the Missouri Tigers at the moment. Matt Harris has done a good job of that so far, and the evidence thus far says that Missouri is soldiering toward their first NCAA Tournament bid in three years.
It is, however, a meditation on how the season in progress informs both the past and the future of Cuonzo Martin’s reign as Missouri’s head coach.
Even the rosiest of lenses could see that Martin’s four years in Columbia have produced mixed-at-best results. Year One was incredibly fun until it wasn’t... until it was again. Year Two saw an expected fall back to earth, with the recognition that the foundational problems would take more to fix than a few five-stars. Year Three was, by the program’s own standards, a disappointment marred by injuries and a lack of player development to key areas on the roster.
And Year Four? That’s why we’re here. No one seems to be completely sold on Cuonzo Martin as the once-and-future leader of the Mizzou Tigers. So it begs the question: How far does he need this team to go to keep his seat cool moving forward?
Before you determine the answer to that question, it’s probably necessary to evaluate where you stand on two other questions.
First, what do you believe about the contextual state of the Missouri basketball program? Think about the past 10 years. Is it fair to say Cuonzo Martin’s team might be better off if not for the precipitous drop off of the final Frank Haith season and the Kim Anderson years? Or has Cuonzo Martin had enough time to separate Missouri from that period and should therefore be evaluated on his own merits?
Second, what do you think is a fair expectation for the Missouri basketball program? Is it fair to think of the Norm Stewart years, with a near-annual NCAA Tournament bid and the occasional challenge for the top of the conference, the standard? Or is Missouri a program that will perpetually live on the bubble? It doesn’t need to be one or the other, but you do need to answer the question.
Once you have those answers in mind, it’s easier to start forming a baseline for where this year’s Missouri Tigers need to go. For example, if you believe Cuonzo Martin is still dealing with the effects of the Anderson years — namely, the reputation hit Missouri took in recruiting and national status — and you’re OK with semi-regular tournament bids, then Cuonzo Martin is doing just fine. After all, 2020-2021 is the first year he’s had a fully-functioning team of his own players without any catastrophic injuries. The result has been a squad ranked in the AP Top 25 for the majority of the season.
However, if you believe that Martin has had sufficient time to resolve the problems that he inherited and that Missouri should be challenging for the top six of the SEC every season, it’s easy to see how Martin has been a disappointment. Only once has he sniffed the NCAA Tournament, and that ended with a blandly non-competitive first weekend exit. Sure, 2020-2021 has been a welcome change of pace, but what happens when anywhere from four to six players hit the exits afterward? Is one upper-tier SEC team every three to four years good enough? Probably not, in this hypothetical person’s estimation.
So what’s the conclusion to the current campaign that makes everyone happy, from the most casual fans to the die-hardest of die hards? There’s probably no clean answer that we can come, but we can run through the options and see where we land. Let’s start from the best-case scenario and move backward...
National Championship: Who wants to start the statue fundraising campaign?
National Runner-Up: Who wants to start the contract extension fundraising campaign?
Final Four: We’re beginning to approach the fundamental constructs of our reality, but I peaked into a neighboring universe to check — everyone seems pretty happy over there.
Elite Eight: Historically, this is where the best of the best Missouri teams get put to pasture. It is, quite literally, the best company you can keep for a Missouri basketball team.
Sweet Sixteen: You’ve probably got near 100 percent approval here (and possibly even a contract extension), though the wartiest segments of the fan base would still probably point to Martin’s Tennessee years as an example of why this still isn’t good.
Round of 32: In this writer’s opinion, this is where you find the gravitational center of this season’s universe. Everything is pointing to the fact that Missouri should be, at the very least, a second-round NCAA Tournament team. Seeding plays a huge role in determining where things go from there.
Round of 64: We already did this once with Cuonzo Martin. It was fun, if somewhat disappointing toward the end.
Again, where you fall depends on your pre-conceived notions about the state of the Missouri program, both historically and in its current state. But once you zoom in, you find the margin between, “unmitigated success,” and, “who’s next” is pretty small. No one who has watched Missouri play thus far would argue that missing the tournament constitutes a successful season. And it seems likely that a trip to the Sweet 16 — which would be the first trip of its kind since 2000 — would likely buy Martin (at least) another two years to continue building his program. The difference between First Four Out and Sweet 16 can be as small as two or three games, the outcomes of which may require some luck to swing in Missouri’s favor.
Then again, college basketball is not played in a vacuum. The pandemic has complicated matters for schools like Missouri without the resources to spend infinitely without reaching the bottom of the coffers. Maybe buyouts seemed easier to swallow when seats were full, but money is tighter than ever — although the SEC’s recent run of firing football coaches may suggest differently.
It’s not as if the results on the court speak perfectly to what we’re seeing on the court either. It was only nine years ago that Missouri fielded one of the five best teams in the country and failed to make it out of the tournament’s first day, much less first weekend. Imagine if Missouri fumbles its way to the finish and grabs a low-seeded at-large bid... and then proceeds to play its way to a regional semi-final. Or what if the Tigers climb near the top of the SEC and nab a 3-or-4-seed, only to fall to an enterprising mid-major in the first round? What matters more — the postseason you’ll almost certainly never win or the regular season where you spend the vast majority of your time and effort?
That’s a lot of questions for Cuonzo Martin, the Tiger administration and, honestly, the fans to answer. And to be honest, the answer to the question in the headline is probably as simple as, “the tournament’s second weekend.” But very few teams make it that far, and the chances are (purely statistically) Missouri won’t be one of them. So in that two-or-three game range between unquestionable failure and success, what needs to happen for Cuonzo Martin to generate positive momentum?
That’s the million dollar question, one that everyone from Jim Sterk to the person reading this will have to answer.