Cuonzo Martin’s first two three-year stints as a head coach can be pretty easily summarized: Reset in year 1, surge in year 2, further improvement in year 3. Missouri State was 196th in Martin’s first year and 68th in his last; Tennessee was 63rd in his first and 10th in his last. Sure, the Vols regressed slightly in his second year, but a key injury had a role to play in that. The pattern seemed pretty stable.
It appeared for a while that his Cal tenure would play out the same way, but this past February scrambled things a bit.
Cuonzo Martin at Cal
Cal has long been a bit of a limbo program — the equivalent to a football team that goes about 7-5 every year. Under Ben Braun, Mike Montgomery, and Martin, the Golden Bears have had just two losing seasons in 19 years. At the same time, they’ve only been to nine NCAA Tournaments in that span. That’s far from bad, but that means a lot of 18-15 seasons.
Under Montgomery, Cal was perfectly solid. The Bears went to the NCAA Tournament four times in six years and went 18-15 and 21-14 in the other two seasons.
Montgomery’s last team was the 21-14 squad, which made NIT quarterfinals before bowing out at SMU. It ranked 60th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings — 63rd on offense and 75th on defense. It was, strangely, a big team that had no present on the offensive glass and didn’t draw or commit fouls. Still, it was a solid foundation.
Four members of that Cal team, who had combined for about 40% of the team’s minutes, either graduated or left before Martin got there. Still, Martin inherited solid players in then-sophomores Jordan Mathews, Sam Singer, and Jabari Bird, junior Tyrone Wallace, and senior David Kravish. Three newcomers — freshmen Brandon Chauca and Kingsley Okoroh and graduate transfer Dwight Tarwater — were asked to contribute only about 19% of the minutes on Martin’s first team. Comparatively speaking, the continuity here was decent.
And yet, the Bears still saw a first-year reset. After a 10-1 start that had then 47th in KenPom, they lost eight of nine, falling to 11-9 overall and a putrid 169th. They won five in a row, then finished the season losing six of eight. Bird missed some games with injury, but this was still a relatively static team, and the results were typical of a Martin first year. I would call that pretty disappointing.
In 2016, that disappointment faded away. Martin brought in two blue-chippers in forward Jaylen Brown (the No. 4 prospect in the class of 2015, per 247) and Ivan Rabb (No. 7), and the new energy, combined with plenty of holdovers (Brown, Wallace, Mathews, Bird, Singer) created the typical second-year Martin surge. Cal finished the year 28th per Pomeroy, beating Oregon, Arizona, and Saint Mary’s at home and barely losing exciting road games at Virginia and Arizona.
Cal was 52nd in offense and 19th on defense; the Bears’ strength was, as at other places, great FG% defense. They prevented teams from bombing away from 3-point range (fourth in 3PA/FGA allowed) and gave you no easy looks inside the arc (2nd in 2PT%). Ball-handling was an issue, but this was a good team, even if it got upset in the NCAA Tournament by Stefan Jankovic and Hawaii.
Brown was picked third overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, and Mathews transferred to Gonzaga, where he would become a key cog for a Final Four team. But Rabb remained, and Cal began 2016-17 looking like the typical strong third-year Martin team.
Heading to Arizona on February 11, the Bears were 18-6 overall and 9-3 in conference play, still a part of the Pac-12 title race and, despite missed opportunities (a four-point loss to Virginia, a five-point loss to Arizona) a surefire NCAA Tourney team.
What happened next might remind people of what happened to Mizzou in 2011, Mike Anderson’s last season. The Bears hit the skids late in the year, losing five of six to finish the regular season (including losses at pretty iffy Stanford and Colorado teams), and after tight wins over Oregon State and Utah in the Pac-12 Tournament, they bowed out with their third loss of the season to Oregon.
At 21-12, they came up short of the Tourney and, with Martin having already spoken with Missouri about its head coaching position, laid an egg in the first round of the NIT against Cal State-Bakersfield.
This obviously wasn’t a bad team. The Bears were about as good as a Martin team has ever been on defense (13th), won 21 games, and finished 62nd in KenPom. Still, even with the loss of Brown, it seemed bigger things were in the cards, and the late-season fizzle was eerily reminiscent of what Martin teams had to deal with at Missouri State and Tennessee. When Martin teams skid off the road, it takes them a while to get back on it.
Cuonzo — Cal offense
Cal’s biggest problem in 2017 was that the Bears couldn’t shoot. (Mizzou fans can relate, I’m sure.) Despite Grant Mullins making 43% of his 3s, the Bears ranked only 218th in 3PT%; and despite 6’11 Rabb’s presence, they were a woeful 282nd in 2PT%, barely better than Missouri.
The Bears were good at rebounding their misses, but they were still iffy in the ball-handling department, and, well, relying on offensive rebounding is a pretty good way to end up with some impressive droughts.
The pieces never quite came together offensively in Berkeley. Martin had one good shooting team (2016 with Brown) and one good ball-handling team (2015). This was the same slow-it-down-and-work-the-ball-inside team we should definitely expect to see in Columbia, but it was too reliant on offensive boards and not good enough at scoring points on the first shot.
Cuonzo — Cal defense
This was also Martin’s best defensive stop. After an okay first year, the Bears were dominant the last two years. They cleaned up the glass from the moment he set foot on campus, and they denied 3-pointers and denied good 2-pointers with aplomb. They were among the worst in the country at forcing turnovers, but it seemed to be a conscious choice — instead of trying to step into passing lanes, they focused on leveraging teams into shots they didn’t want to take. With the rebounding talent on hand, it was a solid strategy.
So let’s summarize.
Cuonzo Martin averages by year
Ignoring who might or might not end up signing with Mizzou in the coming weeks, I think most Missouri fans would take this progression. Impressions are skewed a bit by Michael Porter Jr.’s commitment, but this is still a baseline most can live with.
Cuonzo Martin offensive averages by year
Cal’s turnover problems were unique; typically, a Martin team is pretty average from the perspective of shooting but improves on the glass, and in the ball-handling department, each year.
Cuonzo Martin defensive averages by year
A Martin defense denies 3-point looks and gets better on the defensive glass each year. That’s a pretty good combination.
The most positive spin you can put on Martin’s three tenures is that a) his offenses are dictated by offensive talent and b) his defenses are a trademark strength. If that’s indeed true, then in theory, if Martin is able to recruit like we think he can, then maybe the offense will be fine. We’ll see. The negative spin is that Martin teams aren’t particularly pleasing aesthetically and that he’ll hit his ceiling pretty quickly.
Regardless of whether the positive or negative is more true, Mizzou should expect to recruit well and improve for at least a few years moving forward.