Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin earlier this week spoke to kids in his hometown, East St. Louis, Ill., and he shared the same message with those children that he’s trying to convey to his 7-2 team: Avoid the dangers of “perceived success.”
Martin doesn’t want his team to view this string of three more home games against low- and mid-major teams before the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois as some sort of reprieve — even if the Tigers rank No. 1 in strength of schedule and No. 3 in RPI, according to ESPN. Martin doesn’t want the Tigers — whose start to this season is mostly significant because of past failures — to coast.
The influx of new talent on this Missouri team has presented Martin with a challenge. As the Tigers find success, he must manage the confidence of veteran holdovers who barely won the past few seasons and freshmen who drummed up the hype that led to MU selling out of season tickets.
“Don’t look for someone to pat yourself on the back for gratitude,” Martin said on Thursday, a couple of days before the Tigers play host to Green Bay with a chance to tie MU’s win total from a season ago. “… There’s nothing wrong with having success and feeling good about it, but it’s how you manage it. Continue to push forward.”
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“I thought the team that played the hardest didn’t win the game,” Martin said after beating the RedHawks.
Jordan Geist was the only point guard who didn’t turn the ball over against Miami, and he had four assists. But Martin didn’t think Geist defended well enough.
Jeremiah Tilmon, who fouled out in two of his first three college games, hasn’t done so since and made 6 of 11 shots against the RedHawks. But Martin thinks Tilmon now isn’t aggressive enough.
“I’m not disappointed in performances,” he said Thursday with a playful tone. “Did I give that impression?”
Earlier this season, Martin said he felt as though the Tigers lost a game to Emporia State, a Division II team. MU won that game, but barely.
On the first day of official practice, freshman Jontay Porter called Martin a “mediator” who keeps players’ expectations in check. The coach has said he’s fine with the Tigers’ fans dreaming big after a few tough seasons, but he still has things to teach his team.
The Tigers have struggled to close out games against quality teams, and they’ve turned the ball over with such frequency that they have allowed inferior teams to stick around. They rank No. 30 in the country in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage — which adjusts for the value of a three-point shot versus one inside the arc — but Martin, a defensive-minded coach, said Missouri can be one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“We dominate games,” Martin said. “It doesn’t matter the opponent.”
Maybe this attitude is why Porter, who would be playing his senior year of high school basketball right now if he had not reclassified during the summer, called his head coach “super intimidating.” But he’s also effective — or at least the Tigers hope so.
“You can’t really get away with anything, whether it’s touching the line on sprints, or you miss a layup,” Porter said. “You know you’re in trouble. I think that’s perfect for our team, having a coach that demands that we play to our best potential — and I think he’s really going to do that.”