Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Mizzou hits jackpot as Cuonzo Martin welcomes Michael Porter Jr.

It’s been a whirlwind first week on the job for new Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin ... not to mention the Tigers’ fans.
It’s been a whirlwind first week on the job for new Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin ... not to mention the Tigers’ fans. AP

Technically, anyway, the University of Missouri men’s basketball team has been idle again during the NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile, though, it’s been engulfed in March Madness of its own.

That started percolating about the minute Cuonzo Martin was hired to replace Kim Anderson, who took one for the team to try to stabilize an inherited mess that included an ongoing NCAA investigation he wasn’t made aware of when he took the job.

Given Martin’s 186-121 record in nine seasons at Missouri State, Tennessee and California, and noted juice and connections as a recruiter, anticipation of how he might energize the program was immediate.

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And it was reaching a fever pitch on Friday when Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s top recruit, committed to Mizzou in the wake of his father being hired by Martin.

“Last week everything changed for me regarding my college basketball decision,” Porter Jr., who grew up in Columbia but had committed to Washington before the Huskies fired Lorenzo Romar, wrote in a social media post. “I’m looking forward to the year ahead with Coach Cuonzo Martin and my new teammates … Together we hope to restore the atmosphere at Mizzou Arena.”

Presto, just like that, before Martin has coached a game, everything seemingly has changed in terms of the perception of MU basketball — a vibe you could feel even in the bunker of Sprint Center on Friday evening.

Five things to know about Mizzou basketball recruit Michael Porter Jr., the nation's top-rated player in the Class of 2017.

Optimism has bubbled over the apathy and sheer gloom that came with the Tigers going 27-67 overall and 8-46 in Southeastern Conference play over the last three seasons, with home games played before increasingly dwindling “crowds” at Mizzou Arena.

Some, like my friend and basketball expert Earl Austin Jr. in St. Louis, were hailing this as a transformative commitment unseen for MU hoops since Steve Stipanovich committed to Norm Stewart in 1979.

It’s impossible to know what exact and immediate impact this will have until the Tigers take the court this fall in what figures to be their one and only season with Porter Jr.

But there is an important symbolism in this, both in itself and that can be built upon.

Albeit under some helpful circumstances, the best recruit in the nation has chosen to come to the University of Missouri, which is just emerging from a dismal few years in many ways.

That boldly says … why not Missouri?

That’s a fine point of pride, but it also has the potential to make for a portal to a future that looked bleak only weeks ago, a future that also soon could include Porter’s brother Jontay, a 4-star recruit himself.

Missouri men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was asked about Michael Porter Sr. and his son, Michael Porter Jr., on Monday, March 20, 2017. Porter Sr. is a former coach on the Missouri women's basketball staff as well as the Washington men's staf

It’s all a great reflection on Martin, who could well have been in this job in 2011.

When MU courted Matt Painter to replace Mike Anderson, an informed source told me then, it considered Martin the backup plan and worked to ask him to wait out the process while he was at Missouri State.

But Martin couldn’t resist taking the Tennessee job when it came open, and he was committed to that by the time Painter rebuffed Mizzou, leading to the hiring of Frank Haith.

Maybe you can’t blame Martin for being impatient, though.

After all, he learned to be in the moment a long time ago when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1997.

I interviewed the East St. Louis native about his battle in 1998 when I was working at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and I was struck by his strength and candor.

New Missouri men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was introduced during a news conference on Monday at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.

Along the way to losing 40 pounds during treatments he went through a phase of “why me?”

Then his mother, Sandra, told him, “You’re no exception to the rule. Cancer knocks on everybody’s door. Cancer does not discriminate. So we have to deal with it. Pray. Do the right thing and take your medicine. Pray.”

When he thought of his wife, Roberta, and their then 3-month-old baby, Joshua, Martin came to the conclusion, “I can’t go yet.” He also realized he had it within him to “handle it better than most.”

With the cancer in remission nearly 20 years now, Martin has made the most of his life, too.

Including, now, rapidly revitalizing MU.

It remains to be seen, of course, how this actually plays out on the court for the Tigers.

But for a program that’s sitting out its fourth straight NCAA Tournament and hasn’t won an NCAA game since 2010, somehow this makes for an exhilarating time nonetheless.

The University of Missouri announced the hiring of Cuonzo Martin as men's basketball coach on Wednesday, March 15. Get to know the former Missouri State, Tennessee and California head coach.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian