Cuonzo Martin: Building a consistent program requires “little things”
Cuonzo Martin’s family will soon settle into a new home, one that used to belong to a Columbia doctor who has decided to downsize after becoming an empty-nester. The place needs some renovations, Martin said, but the Missouri men's basketball coach likes the house.
It might not be the 46-year-old father of three’s “forever home” in mid-Missouri, but as he enters the summer before his second year coaching the Tigers, Martin believes Mizzou might be his forever job. Or something like that.
“I’ll tell you what, unless God says something otherwise, this is my last college stop,” Martin said while visiting the Anheuser-Busch Biergarten here for an athletic department fundraiser.
Of course, he is leaving himself open to other employment opportunities outside of coaching. (He even mentioned the title of NCAA president.) He also understands the ground underneath him can shift: “Unless Mizzou fires me,” he added to his otherwise glowing statement.
But for now at least, life is rosy as Martin moves on from the brief Michael Porter Jr. era. He alone is the face of the Tiger basketball program, the one responsible for sustaining the momentum that the one-and-done Porter built last summer. And his boss likes it that way.
“He’s putting us in conversations that maybe we weren’t in a couple of years ago,” MU athletic director Jim Sterk said.
Sterk was referring to Martin successfully establishing Missouri as a force recruiting the St. Louis area, a place the Tigers have historically struck out on the best players. Though highly touted point guard Courtney Ramey decided to sign with Texas, three of Mizzou’s five incoming players are from the area.
Being an East St. Louis, Ill., native helps Martin helps establish connections with local prospects and coaches. Sterk believes it also helps Martin “double down” on the amount of interest he can generate in Missouri basketball: Having a local coach gives fans another reason to be invested.
“I heard from a lot of different sources that he would be a great one to hire — and he’s been better than advertised, as far a coach, or person, how he connects within the athletics department, but also the community,” Sterk said. “He’s really done a good job on all fronts. I’m excited about Year Two.”
Martin said making the NCAA Tournament in Year One allowed Missouri supporters to say, “‘We’re Mizzou fans’ and feel good about that.”
“Now,” he added, “the work has to get done.”
After more than a year at MU, the coach believes he has established a culture within his program. The veterans know to grab rebounds with both hands and to carry around jugs of water to drink everyday. He said he can rely on Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon to guide newcomers.
Of course, there are personnel questions, legitimate reasons to believe an NCAA Tournament berth next season would be an even more impressive accomplishment than this past season’s postseason appearance.
How will the Tigers handle having just senior Jordan Geist and freshman Xavier Pinson as their point guards? And after losing Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett and likely Jontay Porter, where will the scoring come from?
Martin, who said his squad “will be an elite defensive team across the board,” shrugs these concerns off. After all, the same worries existed early into last season, and Geist survived as Mizzou’s primary ball handler while Barnett and Robertson exceeded expectations. Collectively, they helped that Missouri team become the one that, as Martin liked to say, turned the tide.
Now, some members of that team return for next season, and a new narrative exists. It is easy to cast the upcoming season as a transition period for a coach who has lots of job security.
Martin said he doesn’t concern himself with the fact that his squad is already being a bit written off. He mentioned that the media selected Tennessee to finish next to last, 13th, in the SEC this past season — and the Volunteers finished as regular season co-champions.
“Pick us 13th,” Martin said.