This past offseason Matt Harris and I spent a fair amount of time talking about what Missouri should do with any remaining scholarships they had available. Cuonzo Martin and his staff didn’t listen to our input.
Instead of trying to fill and patch holes with a graduate transfer, as we thought made the most sense, Martin went the other way. He filled scholarships with young guys, and unheralded young players at that. He replaced exiting seniors Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson with unranked 3-stars Javon Pickett and Xavier Pinson. He believed instead in building his program through culture, the same culture he began instilling on his first day on the job.
There’s no secret Martin is a tough dude. His story has been told multiple times over. When a team reflects their head coach, they can watch their second half lead lapse and be down to a team with momentum and not flinch. With 7:43 on the clock in the second half, Illinois’ Trent Frazier sank a tough layup in transition to put the Illini up a point. Their first lead since the first half, the building and Illini fans were buzzing. Martin and his team didn’t flinch. Instead they embarked on a 24-4 run which put the game so far out of reach the orange and blue side of the building started emptying out early.
Last season it felt like Illinois had the tougher team, they took the fight to Missouri and it took awhile for the Tigers to get going. The Illini won, withstanding second half runs for their fifth straight Braggin’ Rights win. Last night the Illini again looked like the tougher team early. They were taking the fight to Missouri, forcing turnovers and making the pace more frenetic. But toughness isn’t landing the first punch, it’s landing the last one. Culture builds that.
Martin has instilled his culture of toughness and unflinching will in the face of adversity in this program. Lose your best player right before the season? Nobody is going to feel sorry for you, buck up and play harder. Sink to sub-100 in KenPom early in the season? Find a way to beat a likely tournament team in Overtime thanks to a 3-pointer to tie the game with no time on the clock.
You need breaks to go your way in a lot of games and during the season to be successful, but toughness and will creates breaks. And Missouri has created a lot of their own luck so far this season.
Early on it was looking like this could be a bit of a lost season, one spent getting young players experience in hopes of it being a springboard year as Martin built up the rest of the roster for a run next season and beyond. Even as the team struggled to a 3-3 start with a couple ugly losses to Iowa State and Kansas State, plus a home loss to a mediocre Temple team, waiting till next year isn’t in Martin’s nature. The culture of his life has already taken hold and he isn’t going anywhere. And now I think it’s safe to say the same thing about this Missouri team.
- It was great to see Jontay Porter taking part of the celebration after the game with his teammates. A year ago it never felt like Michael Porter, Jr. was a part of the program. He was always off to the side focused more on his future. I’m still pretty sure Jontay turns pro after this year, but it feels like he’s got more invested in his teammates this year. Which again speaks to the culture of the program taking hold in year two.
- Torrence Watson didn’t have his best night, but if he figures out his off the ball defensive issues he’s going to be dangerous. Every shot he takes is the exact same and it looks like the ball is going in. He was close to breaking the game open on a couple shots and the ball nearly fell. I’m pretty sure Watson is going to have at least one game this year where he just goes off for about 20 points in a half.
Styles make great fights and Brad Underwood and Illinois are a good foil to Cuonzo Martin in style and approach (and vice versa). But I wonder if this is a turning point in the series? Martin has Missouri trending upward, and I’m not sure where Illinois goes from here. They’re 106 in KenPom and playing in the 2nd best conference in the country. They’re projected to win just two more games according to KenPom.
If Illinois goes 10-21, and they don’t have any significant pieces coming in next season, how much faith to Illini fans have going into year 3? Illinois AD Josh Whitman has shown he’s willing to be patient with Lovie Smith, but Illinois is far more a basketball school than a football school. He needs the hoops program to be good and winning and it’s not. So while Martin has instilled his culture and is building with better recruiting, Underwood doesn’t look like he has an answer at this stage. Outside of Trent Frazier, who is going to lift the Illini up the rest of the season?
I’ve spent this space talking about culture, and I look at Illinois and I wonder where it is? It just doesn’t feel like a team with a rudder in the water. Maybe something clicks the rest of the season, maybe Ayo Dosunmu shows he can step up and be the guy they need, but it certainly doesn’t look good in Champaign right now.