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Coaching vs. Program Building: Two different things

Cuonzo is a good coach. I’ll give him that. Everything else? That’s a larger discussion.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’ve read Study Hall, or at least I hope you did. While I was writing that piece, I started going down a rabbit hole on one subject: What coaching actually is versus what we often interpret as issues with it.

But after getting 300 or so-ish words — and nowhere close to finishing my point — I cut it off and just started a new post. It’s mainly because addressing it encompasses more than Missouri letting a game slip away against Florida. Instead, it indirectly impacts every game.

There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding on my position on Cuonzo Martin out there on Twitter.

Last night, I commented that the full-court play Martin drew up and finished Amari Davis taking a tough shot. The design itself was really nice. Except Davis didn’t spot Trevon Brazile open on a back screen. If he makes the right decision, MU has an easy two. Even after watching it several times on replay, I still thought it was sound.

Here’s why:

  • Amari had the ball in his stronger left hand
  • Amari had momentum going toward the rim
  • The back-screen put MU’s other best athlete (Brazile) cutting to the rim.

That’s a good play design.

Did it result in the optimal outcome? No. But this is a case where you separate the process of good scheme from execution. The defense isn’t passive, either. Florida made all the right decisions switching and forcing a difficult shot.

And overall, Martin managed the final minutes well. I might have put Brazile on earlier for rim protection, but you can see the balance Martin’s been forced to strike. The Tigers needed more ball-handling as the Gators ramped up the pressure. And if DaJuan Gordon doesn’t hand-check Tyree Appleby almost 85 feet from the rim — something no coach advises — or Boogie Coleman makes his free throws, they win the game.

While I hated how he handled the end of the Auburn game, my complaints with Martin and his in-game decisions make for a really short list.

There are plenty of things to complain about with this basketball program. Laying them at the feet of Martin also makes sense. He’s the one in charge. But his job also requires him to serve as a general manager and a coach. You hire the assistants, and you select the players. And when it produces one of the worst seasons in five decades, you don’t escape criticism. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Missouri and what it spends on basketball. Still, realistically, there’s no reason it should be hovering in the 130s in KenPom.

The only season worse in Cuonzo Martin’s head coaching career was his first at Missouri State. The Bears finished 11-20 and 197th in Pomeroy’s rankings that year. He’s only had one other sub-100 season, his first at California. So, even for Martin, this is an outlier season.

But it’s unrealistic to blame him for Gordon’s two fouls in the final minute or Coleman bricking the front end of a one-and-one.

However, it’s worth having a more extensive — and candid — discussion about how this collection of players was put together. Parking Brazile and putting more guards on the floor goes back to lacking consistent ball-handing. There’s no point guard Martin can trust to run the team — an absence that’s cost MU in recent games. With Brazile on the sidelines, there’s not enough rim protection or rebounding, which can result in...more fouls.

There are plenty of fair criticisms of Martin and his decision-making when putting together this roster over the last year. We’ve aired them here and on the podcast.

Nearly every issue I have with Martin comes back to building the program, namely player evaluation and acquisition. The talent level gives MU no margin for error, a handicap that goes back to Martin’s choices on who to sign.

A properly constructed roster wouldn’t force Martin to make the tradeoff between ball-handling and rim protection. However, the decision to sign a slew of combo guards and hope Coleman could change positions and transition to a high-major conference brought the Tigers to that place. As I said to a friend yesterday after the game, you’re damned if you do, or damned if you don’t.

But I crack up reading comments like this: “The guy flatout sucks at coaching. The love you guys have for him is unreal” — random Twitterer.

Anyone who says we (and I’m mostly talking about myself and the Matts and Josh, since we do the bulk of the commentary on Hoops) aren’t critical clearly doesn’t listen to the podcast or read the posts. We are, and have been, critical.

But here’s also why I prefer to decouple coaching from the other aspects of running a program: I have experience coaching basketball. I know what it’s like to run a practice, build a scouting report, and manage a game. There are plenty of moments you sit there and watch your team and wonder, “What in the world are they doing?”

At every other level, the coach doesn’t pick the players. The NBA has a GM and an entire staff of scouts and advisers. In high school, where I was an assistant varsity coach and head junior varsity coach, a group of players show up at the start of practice and you pick the best ones out of that group.

When it comes to the coaching part, Martin is actually quite good at it. He’s not elite, but few college coaches genuinely are. But when you don’t gather the right pieces, it doesn’t matter what offensive system you install, how well you scout, how well you manage a sub pattern, and how good you are drawing something up on a whiteboard. Where Martin’s fallen short at Missouri is with assembling the necessary talent to build the program up to where he — and all of us — want it to be.