I don’t want to rain on the happy parade from yesterday afternoon, as we bid a thanks and farewell to Mizzou Senior Javon Pickett, and overcame a sluggish start to beat Georgia at home. But we need to start talking about this.
I briefly considered titling this post “Cuonzo Martin failed and it’s the fans fault”, because I’m completely aware of how our pointing out that Mizzou struggles with fan attendance in comparison to other schools has become something like “Rock M Nation blames all basketball woes on the fans.”
Making a nuanced argument as to why the program might be suffering getting boiled down to one of the points has always been funny to me. I believe there’s a reason Missouri is not an elite basketball school on an annual basis. The leading cause is how the Administration has handled the program in the years following Norm Stewart’s retirement. Stewart had left a program largely considered a top 25 level job, and the pool of candidates in 1998 were wildly different than they are today.
Since then, the lack of investment and some poor hiring decisions has led to fan apathy. Mizzou Arena seats around 16,000, making even a modestly attended game appear lackluster. Maybe if Mizzou hadn’t overbuilt, and had an Arena that only sat around 10,000 it wouldn’t be as bad... but that’s another topic for another day.
Because this isn’t about what’s happened over the last 25 years. It’s about this season.
For just the sixth time in program history (and fourth time since 2015), the Missouri basketball program has lost 20 games. They’re certain to lose at least one more game. The first two times Mizzou lost 20 games were the two seasons before Norm Stewart was hired. Now, back then they didn’t play as many games, but these days losing that many games at the high major level is difficult to do. It happens more frequently than you might think, but it’s not a good thing and it’s a good way to wind up fired.
This season has been bad. Awful in fact. The reason for it ending up this way, the reason the Missouri Tigers Men’s Basketball team has limped to the finish line in one of the worst seasons in program history lays at the feet of the head coach, Cuonzo Martin.
In a recent SB Nation Reacts poll, we asked the readers what Missouri should do about their head coach? The answer was overwhelming in a group of fans ready to move on from the current head coach.
The same coach responsible for two NCAA tournaments in the previous four seasons following the worst three season stretch in Mizzou basketball history. The two non-NCAA seasons (and really all three of Cuonzo’s first three years) were struggles thanks to serious injuries to very key players. Everything culminated last season into an early season surge, and top 10 ranking in the AP Poll in early February.
Mizzou fans had taken to replying to any anti-Mizzou or anti-Cuonzo tweets with just an image of Martin from his school directory picture.
Then things unravelled a bit, or moreso, they evened out.
Missouri was never one of the ten best teams in the country. They were a good team, and an NCAA Tournament team. But they were not a Final Four level team. Still, the slide at the end of the season soured an otherwise successful season. But despite the slide at the end of the season, Martin’s job security was on solid ground.
Before the season, it’s routine for writers to release some version of a hot seat list, and Martin’s name was nowhere to be seen. Nor should it have been. Martin had the slack he’d earned in the previous four years to go out and remake his roster. Coming in was a group of developmental freshman signees, and Martin mixed that with four incoming transfers. Expectations were, shall we say, meager. But most had felt Martin had earned a reset year.
But how do you define a reset year?
North Carolina State is 11-19, and 133 in KenPom. They’ve already announced Kevin Keatts, who was hired the same year as Cuonzo Martin, is coming back to coach his 6th season. Like Martin, Keatts has 2 NCAA trips in his five seasons (they were estimated to make the tournament in 2020, Missouri was not). But for the most part, NC State has been competitive. They’ve been blown out by 20 or more points just twice, and just 7 of their losses are by 10 points or more. I mentioned this in yesterday’s GameDay post, but here’s where Missouri has been:
Missouri has lost 20 of those games. 12 of those games they lost by more than 10 points. 7 games by 20 points or more, and 4 by 25 or more. Now, according to KenPom Missouri’s strength of schedule rates 5th, and according to ESPN’s BPI rankings their SOS ranks 6th. Any way you cut it, the schedule has been a tough one. Losses with a schedule that difficult, are to be expected, but the volume and the point differential are what’s sent the season spiraling.
Despite nearly identical records and KenPom ratings, Keatts is safe. Martin isn’t. Despite being in a weaker league and playing a softer schedule, Keatts is safe. Martin isn’t. Mizzou has 3 top 100 wins, NC State has just one.
So why is Keatts safe, when Martin isn’t? It comes down to the first two paragraphs.
With everyone expecting this season to be a bit of a reset, the NC State reset was softer, and Mizzou went full Leroy Jenkins on it.
Even if the record were still the same, and there was just one 20 point blowout, a couple of 15 point blowouts and every other loss was closer, this is likely a different conversation. If Mizzou had just found a way into a couple more wins, it’s still disappointing but there’s a more obvious path forward. It looks more like a regular reset year.
With how Missouri has looked for very long stretches of the season, and with the pieces in place on the current team, the question remains: What is the path forward?
For Martin, it’s a very frank conversation with his Athletic Director. A conversation where he’ll either lay out an overwhelmingly compelling case to be retained as head coach, or he’ll be confronted with the fact that Missouri wants to move on.
83% of your who voted said you’re ready to move on. And I don’t blame you. There’s no way you can bring him back unless there are plans to make big changes. Change in evaluations, changes in recruiting, changes in staff. Martin can still be successful at Missouri, but not if he’s going to stick with the status quo.
What is, and isn’t Cuonzo’s fault
It’s not Cuonzo’s fault his rebuild was stunted by injuries to Michael Porter Jr, then Jontay Porter, then Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith. Injuries are a part of the game, and while losing major players like that is tough, Missouri still fought and played together. Martin can control those things.
He can control game planning and preparation. He can also control who is on the roster, and on the bench next to him.
So while it’s not his fault that Boogie Coleman misses an open three pointer late in a basketball game, Martin is the reason Coleman is on the roster. He’s also the reason Coleman is on the roster as the team’s best shot at a ball handler.
It was also his decision to hit as hard of a roster reset as he did, and he led the approach to mine the transfer portal and assemble a roster missing a lot of pieces. Martin and his staff miscalculated, and it changed the meaning of the word ‘reset’ to be something which puts jobs in danger.
I don't know what Desiree Reed-Francois is going to do when the season wraps up. I tend to think her, and her boss Mun Choi, have a fairly well-fleshed out plan. I can see a case for both sides, but the case to try this all again next year isn’t looking very good right now.