The easiest thing in the world is to trash anything about Missouri basketball, because the program is beyond stink, and it may end up being true that the apathy, lack of talent and distance to where it needs to go is far too much for Cuonzo Martin.
He is but a man, after all.
But you can’t eat an elephant without taking the first bite, and left-in-the-dust programs could and often do a heck of a lot worse than hiring a man like Martin as head coach.
He is, above all else, relentlessly tough. He built Missouri State from 11-20 to Missouri Valley champion in two seasons, cleaned up Bruce Pearl’s mess and put Tennessee into the NCAA Tournament, and landed better talent at Cal than the school had seen in quite some time.
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Martin is from East St. Louis and maintains close relationships throughout the state of Missouri’s basketball scene. He is a father, husband and former professional player. He grew up in a neighborhood where every kid had seen a stranger’s dead body by freshman year.
He blew out a knee in high school so bad doctors weren’t sure he’d walk again, and went through a cancer that another doctor said might kill him before his 30th birthday. Whatever problems await him at Mizzou won’t be the worst he’s seen.
Also, we probably shouldn’t have waited until the seventh paragraph of this column to mention Martin has reportedly hired Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant, presumably meaning that Michael Porter Jr. — Rivals’ No. 1 player in the upcoming season’s freshman class — will follow.
Porter will likely be in college for just one season, and what’s broken at Mizzou needs more than one season and one star to fix. But this is one heck of a start for a program that’s lost 68 games in three seasons, hasn’t had a first-round NBA pick since 2009 and is in need of self-esteem.
Look, this may fail. Maybe MU’s problems are bigger than one coach can fix. Martin has made just two NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons, has had contentious relationships with fans or administration or both at his last two stops, and Mizzou may be projecting an upside that never comes. Maybe he’s a high-floor, low-ceiling coach who’ll be griped about before we know it.
Tom Crean was heavily rumored to be a top candidate for the job, and likely would’ve been a better fit and hire, but if that was never a serious possibility — and there are plenty of reasons to doubt it ever was — then Martin always made the most sense out of the other candidates.
He is not a True Son, but he’s local, with all of the connections and personal investment that come with it. After years of lethargy and a growing apathy, Martin’s energy and charisma will connect with fans — finally.
He has a lot going for him. There is an old line shared in some coaching circles that jobs are often great when others believe they’re awful, and vice versa. Mizzou’s willingness to give Martin a seven-year contract is a recognition that stability will take time, and that the new coach will need help.
If Porter does indeed play his season of college basketball at Mizzou, it will give Martin a terrific opportunity to shoot adrenaline into a program in desperate need of it.
It will be up to Martin to make the interest last, however. He landed two five-star recruits at Cal, and improved the program, but did not fundamentally change it.
Martin will likely feel his own burst of energy at Mizzou. He left Tennessee as a fan petition called for his firing, and now he has left Cal, where he was an awkward fit turned worse by an administration that at first did not give him a formal contract and later complicated his job with a financial crunch.
Mizzou is a better basketball job than Cal. Martin is sure to talk of a feeling of rejuvenation around what figures to be a supportive administration, recruiting advantages he never had in Berkeley and the welcoming of a fan base that will be discerning but also cheer for his success.
Martin makes sense for Mizzou, in other words, and Mizzou makes sense for Martin. Each offers the other specific strengths, and flaws. Each side is betting on the other, and for the relationship to work, they will have to grow together.
There are a dozen ways this could fail. But you can also see how Mizzou basketball could succeed now. And it’s been a long time since we could say that.