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Taking Stock: What should we make of Mizzou as it nears a coaching crossroads?

Ignoring the chatter surrounding Cuonzo Martin’s future is impossible. History says a quick bounce back is remote, but even if a change is made, MU is a middle-class program seeking surplus value on its investment.

Arkansas v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

By now, it’s routine.

We watch Missouri grind its way through the gears on offense, and hope that it can amass just enough stops to give itself a chance. And even when that happens, the Tigers let winnable games elude their grasp in the final minutes.

Even the most jaded or calloused fan still feels pangs of frustration. Despite a seven-game stretch where coach Cuonzo Martin’s roster creaked toward competency, it was hard to shake a lingering feeling — whether anecdotally or in the underlying metrics — that it wasn’t sustainable.

Now, after Sunday night’s loss to Mississippi State, the Tigers bear a statistical resemblance to the group we saw over the first 15 games of the season. Except they’re shorthanded with just eight bodies. It’s a team gimping toward the finish.

The on-court product is almost an afterthought at this stage. Instead, the conversation inevitably focuses on one topic: whether Martin gets another crack at retrofitting a roster that already endured a radical overhaul last year. Even then, there will be a lurking sensation that it could all go awry again.

This is the reality now.

At least publicly, Martin’s not betraying frustration or a sense of inevitability. Instead, he tells scribes that MU just needs to “get over the hump” and not “get consumed with whatever your record is or whatever you hear on the peripheral.”

It’s vintage Martin — keeping his gaze pointed forward even as everyone loudly discusses your employment. But entering the final two weeks of the regular season, it’s worthwhile to take a measured look at the situation Martin and the program find themselves in.

NCAA Basketball: Pepperdine at Gonzaga
After Washington finished 141st in KenPom, Lorenzo Romar guided the Huskies to the NIT the following season. But he’d only last one more season. Today, he coaches Pepperdine.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Salvaging History

How convinced are you that the sixth season with Martin in charge will beget a seventh in Columbia?

Earlier this month, we outlined expectations for how the season might wind down. Still, it’s a certainty now that MU will finish lower than 100th in KenPom’s ratings. Given where the Tigers started the season, finishing 140th would qualify as an outlier for poor performance. The only curiosity left is morbid: just how low will this remade roster finish?

However, bringing Martin back hinges on the idea that MU won’t be incrementally better. This season counted as hitting the reset button. Another round of roster reconfiguration would have to produce an on-court product that puts the Tigers in contention to play beyond the SEC tournament.

The likelihood: 50-50.

Since 2011, more than 140 high-major programs finished lower than 100th in KenPom. Just half avoided a repeat performance. But, on average, those teams improve by 39 spots the following season. Apply that to MU, and the Tigers rebound to finish...101st.

Contending for the postseason is a rare feat. Out of those 140 programs, 19 finished between 130th and 150th in the ratings, and just four pulled it off. Meanwhile, a mere five finished better than 70th in the ratings. But even if Martin lands somewhere between 70th and 100th, that still means finishing in the lower third of the SEC.

There’s one variable that we should acknowledge, too: the transfer portal.

It’s undeniably been a boon for Iowa State, Wake Forest, and TCU. They all finished lower than 140th in the ratings but are projected to earn dance cards. Meanwhile, Kansas State and Miami (Fla.) are scrapping on the bubble. If all five play in the postseason, that would break with the past decade — but not dramatically.

In other ways, though, the trends still hold. Fourteen power-conference programs finished lower than 100th last season. Among that group, the average improvement is 41.7 spots this season. So, maybe we’ll see one or two teams nail their upgrades, but early on, it’s hard to say definitively that the transfer portal should change our outlook.

But even if Martin does guide MU into the postseason next year, it might not portend long-term stability.

A paltry 13 teams who finished lower than 100th and followed it with an NIT or NCAA Tournament bid were led by a coach who’d been on the job longer than five years. The overwhelming majority were guided by coaches who’d been around less than three seasons. It was evidence of ascension.

Meanwhile, just four of those long-tenured coaches are still employed: Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Iowa’s Fran McCaffrey, and Colorado’s Tad Boyle. As for the other seven, just one, former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, kept their job longer than two more seasons.

Long-Term Fits | Coaching Durability after Sub-100 Season

Season Team Prior Next Change Conf. Coach Season Remaining
Season Team Prior Next Change Conf. Coach Season Remaining
2011 Miss. State 116 83 33 SEC Rick Stansbury 14 0
2012 Arizona State 247 79 168 Pac 12 Herb Sendek 7 2
2012 Ole Miss 100 51 49 SEC Andy Kennedy 7 5
2014 Alabama 105 62 43 SEC Anthony Grant 6 0
2014 Vanderbilt 104 46 58 SEC Kevin Stallings 16 1
2015 Washington 141 65 76 Pac 12 Lorenzo Romar 14 1
2018 Minnesota 108 46 62 Big Ten Richard Pitino 6 2

Except for Kevin Stallings, all of the coaches listed are still working. They’re just at mid-major programs. The likes of Anthony Grant at Dayton, Herb Sendek at Santa Clara, and Rick Stansbury at Western Kentucky have already gained a degree of traction.

Unless a coach has a well-aged CV, it’s usually the case that those postseason trips are less a precursor of a turnaround than a dead-cat bounce. All of this underscores another fundamental question: What do the people in charge want MU basketball to be?

University of Missouri vs University of Florida Set Number: X161612 TK1

Where should we set the bar?

Ditch history. Forget your roots. The program MU was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is irrelevant now. The landscape of the sport has changed by several iterations.

My recommendation: evaluate what the program has done since conference expansion, which unleashed a deluge of money and changed who MU competes with regularly. In January, we used federal spending data to explore the school’s financial commitment to the sport, qualifying as decidedly middle-class.

From 2012 until 2020, the period for which we have data, MU doled out an average of $7.52 million, ahead of only South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi State in the SEC. As part of that analysis, we also showed that 18 wins to 19 wins per season would be a commensurate return on that investment.

But we can also see how a budget frames expectations for success on the recruiting trail or making the postseason.

Here’s how: measure the relationship between average expenses and the average rating of a program’s recruits in 247Sports’ composite index. We can also do it spending and total NCAA Tournament trips.

First, a quick refresher. Correlations are measured on a scale of 1.0 to -1.0. A correlation of 1.0 means a positive relationship, while -1.0 implies a negative relationship. Think of it this way for average spending an average recruit rating:

  • Correlation of 1.0: As spending increases, average rating increases
  • Correlation of -1.0: As spending increases, average rating decreases
  • Correlation of 0.0: Spending doesn’t matter

Next, we can apply it to NCAA tournament bids:

  • Correlation of 1.0: As spending increases, the number of bids increases
  • Correlation of -1.0: As spending increases, the number of bids decreases
  • Correlation of 0.0: Spending doesn’t matter

Now, look at this table, which shows the correlation between average spending with average wins, average recruit, and NCAA tournament trips. Again, they’re all positive, but more importantly, they’re large enough to imply a moderate relationship.

Finding the Floor | 2012-2020 | Correlations

Category Avg. Expenses Avg. Wins Avg. Recruit NCAA Bids
Category Avg. Expenses Avg. Wins Avg. Recruit NCAA Bids
Avg. Expenses 1
Avg. Wins 0.534 1
Avg. Recruit 0.650 0.731 1
NCAA Bids 0.443 0.891 0.627 1

Since conference expansion, the programs that shelled out more money on hoops tend to acquire better talent. They also make the NCAA Tournament more often. Of course, correlation doesn’t mean causation, but we can infer a lot about a program by looking at the line item for hoops.

Even better, we can visualize these relationships using a scatter plot. So, let’s start with spending and player acquisition, shall we?

The plot is divided into four grids, with X-axis set at the median budget for a high-major program ($8.17 million) and the median composite rating (0.9121) for recruits to those schools. Practically speaking, schools in the lower-left quadrant had below-average expenses and below-average recruits.

Notice the yellow dot? That’s Mizzou. Between 2012 and 2020, the Tigers landed recruits with an average rating of 0.9060 — or between 180th and 190th in 247Sports’ index. Do you also see where it’s sitting in relation to the line ascending upward and to the left? Odd as it might sound, MU also outperformed its spending. If the dot were parked right on the line of best fit, the average rating would fall at 0.8982.

Among high-majors, MU’s outlays and talent acquisition lag behind the median. Yet they’re faring comparatively well on the recruiting trail among lower-spending peers. Even when you isolate the SEC, we see the same situation: MU attracts better talent than lower-spending peers like Georgia, Ole Miss, and South Carolina.

Is this an endorsement of MU’s recruiting? No. Instead, it lends us context for what we saw unfold over the better part of a decade. In reality, only six programs — Stanford, USC, Xavier, Maryland, Notre Dame, and LSU — would count as genuine recruiting outliers compared to their budget. We happen to know one extends strong-ass offers. Meanwhile, two more — Maryland and Notre Dame — have close ties to a major shoe company.

What you likely care about is where Martin fits into all of this. The answer isn’t really satisfying, either. It’s on par with the program’s spending. The 20 prep recruits Martin’s reeled in own an average rating of 0.9101 in the 247 composite — or close to the high-major median. But even when you account for traditional transfers, grad transfers, and JUCO prospects, the average prospect (0.8997) would still fall on the line of best fit.

Finding the Floor | Recruiting | Cuonzo Martin

Source Count Average Rating Median Rating
Source Count Average Rating Median Rating
High School 20 0.9101 0.9051
Transfer 7 0.884 0.8678
JUCO 2 0.8752 NA
Grad 2 0.8333 NA
Total 31 0.8997 0.8814

However, Martin’s brief wasn’t to maintain the status quo. Stints at Tennessee and Cal demonstrated Martin could occasionally land elite talent, prospects he then slotted into veteran cores consisting of developmental prospects. In Columbia, though, the hope was more stable support and ties to the St. Louis metro area would see Martin take the next step in roster building.

You know the rest already. How a top-five class in 2017 would catalyze momentum right as prospects like Courtney Ramey, E.J. Liddell, Caleb Love, and Cam’Ron Fletcher entered the pipeline. Meanwhile, an assistant like Cornell Mann could leverage his Rolodex in Michigan to build a pipeline.

Instead, recruiting has stayed about the same.

Finding the Floor | Recruiting | 2012-2020 | By Coach

Coach Count Average Median Normal Range
Coach Count Average Median Normal Range
Frank Haith 17 0.9248 0.9067 0.8696-0.9800
Kim Anderson 17 0.8797 0.8709 0.8363-0.9231
Cuonzo Martin 31 0.8997 0.8814 0.8471-0.9523
All 65 0.9016 0.8880 0.8485-0.9547

Since 2017, Martin’s signed three recruits that would count as outliers for MU: Mark Smith, Tray Jackson, and Aidan Shaw. Torrence Watson (0.9498) just missed the cutoff. After him, the likes of Blake Harris (0.9266), DaJuan Gordon (0.9208), Anton Brookshire (0.9207), and Mario McKinney (0.9185) are all closer to the median rating than elite status.

A more pointed critique might be that MU’s failed to develop and maximize those prospects. Jackson’s minutes yoyoed behind Kobe Brown, and he bailed for Seton Hall. After a scintillating close to his freshman season, Watson’s role consisted of spot minutes spent running to a corner and waiting for kickouts. Now at Elon, Watson said the experience sapped his confidence. Meanwhile, Harris, Brookshire, and McKinney collectively demonstrate the program’s issue developing ball-handling — ramifications that are obvious to anyone watching.

Martin’s mined the transfer portal effectively for the likes of Dru Smith and Kassius Robertson, but the current crop of transfers has proven a decidedly mixed bag. Based on efficiency alone, you could argue Gordon and Ronning DeGray IIII have been more impactful, which is a testament to why this rebuild has gone awry.

Consider this, too: The quality of recruits coming into the SEC has dramatically improved. In Mizzou’s first year as an SEC member, the average recruit rating (0.8766) was far behind other power conferences (0.9032), but as the SEC Network became an ATM fueling investment in hoops, that changed dramatically.

The point of all this? Martin’s recruited well enough to build competitive rosters. It’s also commensurate with MU’s investment. And that’s an issue.

Suppose MU’s not going to ramp up spending to keep pace with the rest of the SEC. In that case, the school needs a coach who can either punch above his weight or whose scouting is adept at mining undervalued prospects and consistently developing them.

Instead, this cycle plays out: Jackson decamps, replaced by Ed Chang. But Chang never plays, and he leaves. To fill that void, you pluck DeGray from the transfer portal. Or consider the spring of 2019. MU had two openings. It used one for Kobe Brown but didn’t double back to Rock Bridge wing Isiaih Mosley, who is now on to NBA draft boards after a stellar career for Missouri State.

As Sam talked about a couple of weeks ago, Martin deserves credit for his ability to adapt, which has proven helpful at different points in his tenure. But increasingly, it’s been in response to poor roster construction. We’ve seen Martin’s coaching acumen, but his ability to execute a larger vision for the program is in doubt.

Plotting the relationship between average spending and NCAA tournament bids is also helpful. Again, MU’s represented by a gold dot. This time, it’s below the line of best fit. Given its budget, we might expect MU to earn 2.55 bids – or one every three years. That’s one less than it made during the period in question.

Again, that’s MU. Are they grossly underachieving? Not really. Most fans grossly overestimate how easy it is to make the NCAA Tournament. From 2012 to 2020, only a dozen teams made the field at least 75 percent of the time. The likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, Oklahoma, or Virginia have pulled it off without oodles of cash. But the Sooners and Badgers — the closest comps to MU — have been coached by four likely Hall of Famers: Kelvin Sampson, Lon Kruger, Dick Bennett, and Bo Ryan. Meanwhile, the median number of tourney appearances for power-conference schools during that period was three.

In other words, making the dance four or five times a decade is the baseline. Had MU snuck into the field back in 2014, it would have hit the benchmark. As for Martin, two bids in four seasons on the job qualifies as a solid performance.

Finally, let’s compare MU’s (very) loose benchmarks with its SEC and high-major peers.

Finding the Floor | 2012-2020 | Comparing MU to median SEC and High-Majors

Team Expenses Wins Recruit NCAA Bids
Team Expenses Wins Recruit NCAA Bids
Missouri $7,521,544.40 15.38 0.906 2
SEC $8,279,906.00 19 0.9121 2
High-Majors $8,171,404.00 20 0.9093 3
EADA, 247Sports

Obviously, Kim Anderson’s tenure is a drag on a win total. That much is obvious. Otherwise, MU’s recruiting across the coaches aligns with its overall expenses. Three NCAA Tournament trips would also qualify as a typical return on investment.

All that said, it’s easy to understand why fans progressed from irate to apathy. There might be less angst if the program landed three-star talent, steadily built veteran cores that never bottomed out, and evolved in NCAA Tournament teams. In other words, a steady progression might make all of it more tolerable.

Instead, MU oscillates wildly. Haith became overly reliant on transfers without cultivating youth. (He also ran afoul of recruiting rules.) Anderson failed in every respect. And Martin’s vision has never manifested itself on the floor, whether it’s through injury or scattershot player development.

The Tigers are decidedly middle-class, a representation you might reject. That’s fine. But objective data reflects that characterization. Embracing it might also help ground the evaluation of any coach in a logical place.

Syndication: Columbia Daily Tribune Don Shrubshell/Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

Let’s look at legalese

Figuring out whether Martin’s still the right fit might range between $6 million and $9 million — not an insignificant sum for an athletic department stuck in the red.

There’s also not a ton of wiggle room. Martin used his leverage well in negotiating buyout terms five years ago. Under his contract’s terms, earning an NCAA Tournament bid served as a trigger event. The resulting protections effectively serve as a three-year extension.

We could walk through the mechanics of a buyout and liquidated damages, but if MU’s making a change now, the exercise is mostly irrelevant. Under Martin’s contract, he cannot be dismissed until May 1. Separating now requires negotiating an exit agreement, and it’s probably more helpful to think about the present value of what Martin’s owed.

(This is where I mention it’s handy to have an attorney, Matt Watkins, on our masthead.)

On May 1, Martin will be due a little more than $5 million on his remaining deal, while a buyout would cost $6 million. That’s essentially a 20 percent premium — one Martin’s camp could apply to any remaining salary to push the buyout date back. For example, Martin will still be owed $5.43 million on March 1, rising to $6.57 million after applying the premium mentioned above.

Martin owns significant leverage, too. Contractually, MU cannot fire him until May 1. Doing so would be a breach of contract. Which is not good. Getting out sooner requires a new deal where Martin’s consent is required. Essentially, Martin could push for anywhere between $6.3 million and $6.5 million if he’s fired next month.

Could MU save money by keeping him around another season? Not really. Martin’s contract involves an offset where salary displaces buyout money. Over the next year, the liquidated damages would fall to $3 million. But combined with his salary, Martin still stands to earn $6 million.

This is where we also talk about opportunity cost. The actual cost of moving on from Martin is relatively fixed. It’s simply a matter of mechanics. You haggle over that structure if you have the money lined up at the negotiating table. You’re paying that premium to buy back time: time to vet candidates, time to run a coherent search, time for a new coach to hire his staff, and time for those assistant coaches to help retrofit a roster.

Obviously, the money for a new coach — from buying their existing contract to a staff pool — is an additional cost. But we’re focused on Martin for now.

The tradeoff in keeping Martin is you might see another coach come off the market. All else being equal, the only reason MU would stand pat is that it harbors the belief Martin can still work out or because the coaching market isn’t offering viable alternatives.

But cathartic as it might be for some to see Martin exit, the program still confronts structural issues that need to be resolved.

It’s not awash in cash, and most top-25 level programs spend $10 million on the sport. To lure a sitting high-major coach, the school would likely have to substantially up its investment. Maybe that’s in the offing, but history suggests MU only increases budgets to keep pace with inflation.

The market for retread coaches is also problematic. Sean Miller potentially faces a show-cause for violations at Arizona. Greg Marshall took a swing at players and coaches while at Wichita State. Rick Pitino will be 70 years old and doesn’t have Adidas runners helping him on the recruiting trail. And Chris Mack appears to be enjoying buyout life.

The more likely option is trawling the mid-major ranks for a fast-rising coach. But identifying the right choice requires institutional alignment. You remember the last football coaching search, no? Then there’s also the matter of ensuring they have the financial resources to build a staff that can swim quickly in a power conference.

Whether it’s Martin or a replacement, any coach will work hard. The task for MU is to find one who can work smarter — and maximize what the program is today.