Martin’s SEC peers expect big things from rebuilt Mizzou
COLUMBIA, MO. • After three last-place finishes in the Southeastern Conference and three years of empty seats at Mizzou Arena, the Missouri men’s basketball program has grabbed the attention of the coaches around the league.
That’s what happens when you hire an established head coach with SEC ties who then signs the nation’s seventh-ranked recruiting class, including the No. 1 high school prospect.
The same coaches who are always in campaign mode to endorse SEC basketball prowess — you might have heard the league landed three teams in the 2017 Elite Eight, including first-time Final Four participant South Carolina — took turns Monday praising Mizzou’s swift rebuild, which started March 15 when athletics director Jim Sterk hired Cuonzo Martin to pull the Tigers out of the Kim Anderson quagmire.
The SEC coach who knows Missouri’s program best said the Tigers will “be on everybody’s radar” this season.
“I’m excited for Cuonzo,” said Arkansas’ Mike Anderson, Mizzou’s coach from 2006-11. “Timing is everything. He’s been able to put together a tremendous recruiting class. We always (say) coaching is sometimes overrated. You’ve got to have players.”
Martin has reconstructed Mizzou’s roster with five newcomers, headlined by 6-10 forward Michael Porter Jr., the country’s top-rated recruit and winner of multiple national player of the year awards. Mike Anderson was still coaching at Mizzou when the Porter family arrived in Columbia in 2010. Porter Jr., who played at Father Tolton High School before moving to Seattle for his senior year, was 12 at the time and starting sixth grade.
“I can remember when the kid was 6 feet (tall),” Anderson said. “He shot up like a cannon.”
Anderson also noted Mizzou’s addition of 6-11 freshman forward Jeremiah Tilmon, a four-star prospect from East St. Louis expected to immediately contribute inside, plus the return of junior point guard Terrence Phillips and MU’s other core veterans. The combination of MU’s impact rookies and seasoned players has Martin’s peers on alert, especially considering Martin’s SEC experience. During Martin’s three years as Tennessee’s head coach (2011-14), only Kentucky’s John Calipari and Florida’s Billy Donovan won more games in the SEC than Martin’s 63 victories.
“Cuonzo has been through the wars of the SEC,” Mike Anderson said. “He knows what it takes to compete at a high level. I’m sure he’ll turn it around really quick. He’s got some good players there. Missouri has done a good job bringing in a guy that can recognize talent. He can get those guys to play at a high level. All it does is continue to put another team that’s going to be on everybody’s radar and have a chance to play postseason basketball at the end of the year.”
For years the SEC has discussed ways to improve the league’s basketball reputation and land more teams in the NCAA Tournament. Five teams made the bracket last March, two more than the 2016 field. Mizzou might have to triple its eight wins from 2016-17 to make the 2018 NCAA bracket, but Martin’s fellow coaches believe his first three months on the job reflect well on the SEC’s efforts to improve as a basketball conference.
“Assembling a really talented team at Missouri in a short period of time is great for Missouri. It’s great for the SEC,” Alabama’s Avery Johnson said. “I think it’s going to continue to upgrade SEC basketball. We’re trying to position ourselves where we can get seven or eight teams in the NCAA Tournament and that means we have to get really good wins against each other in the conference, and hopefully some of the losses we encounter against each other won’t be as devastating because the teams in our conference are going to be much stronger.”
Johnson, who also signed a top-10 recruiting class, is 3-0 against Missouri since taking over at Alabama two years ago. He seems to expect a bigger challenge from the Tigers with Martin in charge. MU was 27-68 under Kim Anderson and never won more than three regular-season conference games.
“That’s a team that’s looking to go from worst to first,” Johnson said. “If they can position themselves somewhere in the middle or the upper part of the league it’s going to be really good for the entire league.”
Since the 1950s, when the NCAA Tournament field expanded beyond eight teams, the most improved win total from one season to the next in the SEC is 16 by Louisiana State in 1999-2000, when the Tigers went from 12 wins the previous season to 28. Mike Anderson led Missouri to its greatest one-year turnaround for victories in 2008-09, when the Tigers went from 16 to 31 wins and reached the Elite Eight, then as a member of the Big 12.
For Martin’s 2017-18 Tigers to figure into the NCAA Tournament conversation, they’d probably have to put together the greatest one-year jump for victories in SEC history, which might not be all that difficult considering MU won only eight games last season.
In a conference that annually trails the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East for NCAA bids and always scrambles for quality wins come March, SEC coaches welcome the outsized expectations for a Mizzou program that’s been seemingly dormant the last three years.
“He’s inheriting a situation where he’s got some good young players now that have been baptized by fire their freshman and sophomore years,” Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy said. “Typically when you become a junior at this level you’re ready to take the next step. He’s got some guys ready to do that, plus the infusion of new young talent. Certainly Missouri basketball is going to make a major step forward this season.”