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Identifying the games that derailed Cuonzo Martin’s time at Missouri

Martin’s time at Mizzou had highlights, but a series of key obstacles halted his momentum and, eventually, his tenure.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

When a coaching relationship goes sour, there’s never one moment to pinpoint where things went wrong. There may be a final blow or a point-of-no-return. But the decision can often be traced by a series of symptoms that developed over the course of weeks, months and years.

Cuonzo Martin is no longer the head basketball coach at Missouri. It’s a change that we’ve been earnestly pondering over for the better part of the last three months, one that was confirmed early Friday evening. It’s probably no secret, however, that this is a change that’s been simmering in the broader Mizzou discourse for the past year... maybe two if you stretch to the outskirts of the internet.

We’ve already covered a lot of what went wrong with Martin’s term at Rock M Nation. The recruiting has been disappointing. The financial investment hasn’t been up to par. The on-court production has simply not been good enough. It’s this, it’s that, it’s all of the above and more that make up the complex formula that ultimately ended Martin’s time in Columbia.

However, it’s at least worth revisiting the basketball moments that contributed heavily to this moment. Not because they provide any sort of schadenfreude or catharsis, but because they may help us identify future similar moments of turmoil (god forbid.)

After quickly combing over the five years of Martin’s time in black and gold, these are the three games that stand out most clearly as signs of trouble, omens of a Friday night in early March when another coaching search kicked off in earnest.

Home Loss to Charleston Southern: December 3, 2019

NCAA Basketball: Charleston Southern at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The first real sign of trouble — outside of Cuonzo’s control that is; only the craziest contingent could blame him for the Porter injuries — came early into Cuonzo’s third season. A second Jontay injury already had the fanbase recalibrating expectations, but a cautious optimism permeated the air. The much ballyhooed Dru Smith was finally eligible to hit the court. Mark Smith, Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson were back after promising first seasons in Columbia. Jeremiah Tilmon was improving year-by-year. Tray Jackson and Mario McKinney represented an uptick in recruiting. If an NCAA Tournament bid wasn’t on the table, at least the Tigers would be in the thick of things.

Instead, disaster struck and Martin was hit with his first shockwave of True Son angst. The 4-3 Tigers coughed up 16 turnovers and were scorched behind the arc by a Charleston Southern team that would finish 7th in the Big South and 318th in the overall KenPom rankings. By the adjusted efficiency, it was the worst team Missouri had lost to since Pomeroy started collecting data.

The loss would effectively zap any and all momentum from what was supposed to be an improvement on the previous year’s retool. Tilmon and Mark Smith would miss much of the season with various injuries. McKinney was out by the semester, and Jackson wasn’t far behind him in March. Torrence Watson turned in a meme-worthy 0 point, 1 rebound, 2 turnover, 2 foul performance in 25 minutes that seemingly swallowed any confidence from the rest of his college career.

In no way was Charles Southern, “the beginning of the end,” but it effectively turned the tide on what had been a solid-if-unspectacular rebuild to that point.

Road Loss to Ole Miss: February 10, 2021

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Mississippi Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

On the morning of February 10, 2021, things were about as good for Mizzou Basketball as they’d been in a decade. Mizzou was ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll and had one of the strongest NCAA resumes in the country. The Tigers were 13-3 and poised to make a run at the SEC regular season title. That night, they were heading to Ole Miss, a thorn in the program’s side which would once again leave a painful mark.

The Rebels were a bubble team until the end and received a No. 1 seed in the NIT. Losing on the road to a team like that isn’t unforgivable. What was unforgivable, however, was the manner in which Mizzou lost. The Tigers were man-handled on the glass and loose on defense, allowing Ole Miss to shoot nearly 68 percent from two and 40 percent from three. While the rest of the team came out well enough, Jeremiah Tilmon and Xavier Pinson managed offensive ratings of 72 and 48, respectively. Missouri was thoroughly dominated by a lesser seemingly lesser team.

What’s worse? It started a collapse that nearly undid all the good will built up in the three months prior. A close OT loss to Arkansas turned into road loss to lowly Georgia, which turned into another home loss to (guess who?) Ole Miss, which turned into a second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament, which turned into a disappointing (undeserved?) 9-seed and an unceremonious first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament. All the while, Xavier Pinson had a not-so-quiet falling out with the coaching staff and would go on to join a conference rival in the offseason. Including X, Martin would lose nearly all of his main contributors, forcing a rebuild headed into year five.

A bid in the NCAA Tournament and wins over nine qualifying teams — including three that would make it to the Sweet 16 or beyond — shouldn’t be a disappointing year in a vacuum. But the way things unfolded for the best roster of Martin’s tenure created an unquestionably sour feeling in the stomachs of all Tiger fans — and further alienated those who already wished to see him gone.

Home Loss to UMKC: November 15, 2021

This wasn’t the nail in the coffin for everyone, but it had an unfortunate effect on two fronts.

First, it was a painful reminder of the previous era of Mizzou Basketball, the one Cuonzo Martin was supposed to be ushering out. While it’s purely coincidental that two of the worst Mizzou losses this decade came at the hands of UMKC, fans couldn’t help but remember the first game of Kim Anderson’s brief time in Columbia. As Anderson’s loss was an inauspicious omen of the three years to follow, Martin’s was a stark reality check to how underwhelming the 2021-2022 season would turn out, even by meager expectations.

Second, it firmly unsettled the holdouts (amongst whom I considered myself.) While Martin’s time at Mizzou hadn’t exactly been sterling, there was enough to suggest (at that time) that things were at least on the slightest of upward trajectories. Martin had a solid freshman class to work with, a seemingly promising stable of mid-major transfers and a track record of melding such players into NCAA Tournament caliber groups.

After the UMKC loss, though, even those of us who caped for Martin couldn’t help but wonder where this team was headed. Not good places, it would turn out.

After this game I got a message from someone who knows basketball (and the Mizzou program) far better than I do. This person had also been a Martin stalwart, someone who believed that he deserved at least this year and the next to prove that a foundation was being built. After the buzzer rang, he said something to the effect of, “This is the first time I’ve ever thought that this isn’t going to work out.”

As it so happens, he was right.

The “What If?” aspect of Martin’s time at Missouri will always be fascinating to me. It’s a decadent cornucopia of sliding doors, each of which open into an alternate universe where Mizzou Hoops is, at worst, a mid-tier SEC program that was knocking on the door of the NCAA’s in each of his five seasons (and possibly longer.)

What if Michael Porter, Jr. doesn’t hurt his back?

What if Jontay Porter doesn’t tear his ACL?

What if Jontay Porter doesn’t tear his ACL again?

What if one of EJ Liddell, Cam’Ron Fletcher, Caleb Love or Josh Christopher commits?

What if Justin Turner doesn’t feel last minute loyalties for Bowling Green?

In some way or another, all of these things were out of Martin’s hands. All that was required was a little luck to swing his way... and things could’ve been different.

That doesn’t excuse Martin’s failures at Missouri. He missed on more recruits than he should have and relied too heavily on development projects. His roster-building strategies sometimes felt risky and incomplete. He never fully embraced pace-and-space as he might have suggested at some points.

Martin was handed a crappy deck of cards and, by faults of his own and the cruel mistresses of fate, failed to stack the deck in his favor. It led to nights like these, nights that evolved into moments that evolved into trends, trends that would ultimately leave Martin and Missouri adrift, like two ships passing in the night after a long, uneventful meeting.