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Cuonzo Martin’s Missouri State teams were driven by half-court offense and defensive boards

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After a rebuilding year, Martin went 50-21 at Missouri State and won the Bears’ only Missouri Valley title.

California v Oregon Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Cuonzo Martin’s head coaching career can be broken down into neat little chunks. After parts of three seasons in the pros, Martin briefly worked as an assistant coach at West Lafayette High School before landing a spot on mentor Gene Keady’s staff in 2000.

The end of the Keady era was a slow decay. After losing in the Elite Eight in 2000, the Boilermakers would reach the NCAA Tournament only once in his final five seasons. When Keady retired after a rough 7-21 campaign in 2004-05, protege Matt Painter took over and kept Martin on staff.

The Boilermakers were back in the NCAA Tournament by Painter’s second year in charge, going 22-12 and losing in the second round. Martin was named associate head coach, and Purdue won 25 games in 2007-08.

By this point, Martin’s coaching profile was attractive enough to land him a gig at Missouri State. Painter had to find himself a new star recruiter — while Purdue would average 27 wins per season in the three years after Martin’s departure, a lack of high-level talent played a role in Painter’s slide to 18 wins per year from 2012-14.

Under Barry Hinson, Missouri State had been consistently solid and consistently overlooked. They were 20-8, 12-6 in the Missouri Valley, and 35th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings in 2006 but missed the NCAA Tournament. In 2007, they were 22-10 and 36th and missed out again. Following a 17-16 drop-off in 2008, Hinson was fired and on his way to Bill Self’s bench as a Kansas assistant. Martin took over within a few weeks.

Hinson’s last SMS MSU team featured five seniors playing decent minutes, so Martin inherited a rebuilding project of sorts. Senior Chris Cooks awaited, as did a couple of role players in 6’1 senior Spencer Laurie (!) and 6’0 junior Justin Fuehrmeyer. But on the interior, senior Wade Knapp was the only returnee with any level of experience.

Cooks carried as much of the scoring load as he could, averaging 12.4 points per game, but freshmen Kyle Weems (10.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG) and Cardell McFarland (6.9 PPG) and sophomores Will Creekmore (7.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and Ryan Jehle (4.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG) all played major roles.

Missouri State ranked 235th in Ken Pomeroy’s Minutes Continuity stat (something Mizzou has routinely ranked horribly in), and it showed. The Bears started the season 7-3 with a win over Arkansas but fell apart soon after. From December 22 through the end of the season, they lost 17 of 21. A 59-46 loss to Wichita State in the opening round of the MVC Tournament ended an 11-20 campaign.

In the second season, things picked up in a hurry. Martin brought in Eastern Kentucky transfer (and Lee’s Summit native) Adam Leonard (13 PPG), JUCO guard/foul-drawing machine Nafis Ricks (7.4 PPG, 2.7 APG), and freshmen Jermaine Mallett (10.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) and Keith Pickens (3.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG). Combined with improved performances from Weems (13.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG) and Creekmore (8.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG), Missouri State suddenly had a strong team.

The Bears again started the season hot and then cooled off — they were 12-1 and 2-0 in conference play when a road loss to Northern Iowa kickstarted a run of nine losses in 14 games. (Midseason lulls were a problem at Cal, too, which we’ll get to later on in this series.)

This time, though, MSU rebounded. A BracketBuster win over Nevada steadied the ship, and the Bears won a game in the MVC Tournament before losing to a much better Wichita State team and finishing the regular season 20-12. This was enough to earn a bid in the CIT, which the Bears proceeded to win. They took down Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Creighton, and Pacific, all at home, to take the crown.

In 2010-11, Missouri State went from low continuity to extreme continuity — the Bears ranked 18th in Minutes Continuity, in fact. Weems (16 PPG, 6.9 RPG) took a star turn, Mallett (11.7 PPG, 6.0 RPG), Creekmore (11.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG), and Leonard (10.1 PPG) all averaged in double digits, and Ricks (9.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.9 APG) came close. This was a team with four seniors and three juniors, and a four-man freshman class wasn’t asked to contribute much (Nathan Scheer pitched in 4.1 PPG).

Cuonzo Martin and Missouri State

Coach KenPom Rk Coach W-L Tempo Rk Off Rk Def Rk
Coach KenPom Rk Coach W-L Tempo Rk Off Rk Def Rk
2006-08 53 Barry Hinson 20-12 120 63 57
2009 196 Cuonzo Martin 11-20 298 230 153
2010 74 Cuonzo Martin 24-12 256 41 142
2011 68 Cuonzo Martin 26-9 318 29 153
2012-14 152 Paul Lusk 16-17 297 159 153

Missouri State improved to 68th in the Pomeroy rankings, up from 74th in 2010 and 196th the year before that. The Bears narrowly missed out on a résumé booster in non-conference play, losing to eventual tourney team Tennessee, 60-56. Still, their midseason lull was a mere 2-3 stretch in late-January. They emerged from it in time to sweep Wichita State (a team that would go on to reach the Final Four) on the way to a 15-3 record and Missouri State’s only Missouri Valley regular season title.

Unfortunately, the Bears suffered a 60-56 upset loss to Indiana State at Arch Madness. They were snubbed for an NCAA Tournament bid in favor of a 22-8 UAB team that had lost its first conference tournament game. The Blazers got rocked by Clemson in the NCAAs; Missouri State beat Murray State in the NIT, then bowed out to Miami in the second round.

Cuonzo Martin’s last game at Missouri State was a loss to a Frank Haith team. The world is very strange sometimes.

So what can the stats tell us about Martin’s time in Springfield? To answer that question, we’ll look at Martin’s three years, plus Missouri’s averages for the three years before and after his arrival.

As we see here, it’s hard to create an average of sorts for Martin because the first year was a Year Zero reset. Looking only at his last two years, he had the Bears almost back to where Hinson had them in 2006 and 2007 and had them winning more games. Contrary to Martin’s reputation, though, it was offense where the improvement happened. His last two Missouri State offenses were better than Hinson’s (and much better than that of successor Paul Lusk), but his defenses never really came around.

Cuonzo — Missouri State offense

Coach Coach Off Rk eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% FT% 3PA% A%
Coach Coach Off Rk eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% FT% 3PA% A%
2006-08 Barry Hinson 63 77 149 119 132 96 75 90 124 78
2009 Cuonzo Martin 230 283 204 219 128 267 275 201 52 139
2010 Cuonzo Martin 41 74 29 156 208 107 66 39 117 95
2011 Cuonzo Martin 29 55 15 155 151 101 40 59 128 132
2012-14 Paul Lusk 159 217 36 303 235 216 209 158 144 195

Martin’s first Missouri State team had no shooters, and it was painfully obvious. But perhaps most noteworthy here is the drastic improvement in both shooting and ball-handling. His first Bears team shot and missed a ton of 3s and had minimal inside presence; his next two squads grabbed more offensive rebounds, made a better rate of 2-pointers, and both took fewer and made a much higher percentage of its 3-pointers.

That 2011 team boasted Creekmore on the interior, drawing fouls, grabbing boards, and working as a center of gravity. The more defenders had to drift inside, the more it opened up Leonard (37% 3-point shooting on 231 attempts), Weems (40% on 167 attempts), and Mallett (39% on 115 attempts). There was far better depth and balance after that rough first year.

Cuonzo — Missouri State defense

Coach Coach AdjD eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% Blk% 3PA% A%
Coach Coach AdjD eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% Blk% 3PA% A%
2006-08 Barry Hinson 57 109 90 84 157 94 149 102 251 219
2009 Cuonzo Martin 153 200 136 96 296 215 175 268 114 118
2010 Cuonzo Martin 142 183 214 16 159 98 313 189 155 80
2011 Cuonzo Martin 153 212 298 7 92 226 190 220 47 27
2012-14 Paul Lusk 153 207 219 87 223 198 198 279 270 238

Defense, on the other hand, was an issue. Hinson’s teams were awesome on that side of the court, and while Martin’s teams matched Hinson in terms of defensive rebounding and, after that first year, did a fine job of avoiding fouls, they gave up a ton of easy looks, especially inside the arc. And for as well as they avoided turnovers on offense, they forced next to none on defense.

Martin’s Missouri State teams were plodding and reasonably physical, and their strengths were balanced offense and strong defensive rebounding. They probably deserved an NCAA Tournament bid in his last year in Springfield, but regardless, he set the bar higher than his successor could match. In the six seasons since he left, Missouri State had not recorded another top-75 finish and has won more than 17 games in a season only once.

Following the loss to Miami, Tennessee came calling. We’ll look at his turbulent tenure in Knoxville tomorrow.