Vahe Gregorian

Why Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin has restrained reaction to playing Kansas in Border War

Pleased as University of Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin might be about the renewal of the dormant Border War series with Kansas, a man who measures and values every word spoke with restraint Thursday when he addressed it publicly for the first time.

In stark contrast to MU football coach Barry Odom, who was so animated about the news that he hoped the game soon would be restored on the gridiron and invoked a wish that his young sons get to play KU, Martin projected what might be called a casual satisfaction over the six-year contract that begins next year at Sprint Center.

For instance, asked how he expected the game to be received at Mizzou Arena, Martin said he’d like to think every home game has the same appeal to fans “because you’re supporting your home team.” And when it was suggested that having such a highly regarded program on the schedule would be beneficial to Missouri, Martin gently took exception.

“I think both (are) highly regarded programs; I think it’s beneficial to both programs,” said Martin, who learned long ago not to let himself get pushed around. “I’ll leave it at that and then when we see them, we’ll see them.”

Martin’s tone was not quite sharp but pointed, nonetheless, for a few reasons starting with what seemed a simple point of pride: In the hallway after a news conference at Mizzou Arena, Martin wanted to make it clear he never had been fixated on playing KU.

Now, he has great appreciation for Kansas’ basketball history and reiterated what he told me last year about being eager to see Allen Fieldhouse and the adjacent DeBruce Center that houses James Naismith’s original rules of “Basket Ball.”

“I might need to get over there, put a wig on,” he said, with a laugh, softening what he said last year when he suggested he’d need to “put my armor on and go through.”

If he needed some inside help getting in, heck, he figured then that KU coach Bill Self would be up for hosting.

In fact, Martin seems to like Self and says they have a good relationship. But this was rarely a topic between them when they’d see each other at such events as the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Kansas City season tipoff in KC.

“It wasn’t like I’m sitting here beating down Bill’s door saying, ‘Let’s try to make this happen,’” he said. “He has a lot of stuff going on; we have a lot of stuff going on. If we can make it happen, make it happen. … You want to play, great. If not, I understand.”

Moreover, unlike Odom, who played at MU, Martin isn’t steeped in the rivalry even if he was clad in black and gold once against Kansas — playing for Purdue in the Boilermakers’ 83-78 win in a 1994 NCAA Tournament game.

His 29 points and eight three-pointers that day were overshadowed by Glenn Robinson’s 44, something Martin recalled with a smile after his introductory MU news conference in 2017 as KU and Purdue prepared to play — not against each other, of course — in that year’s Tournament.

“I remember the dunk Glenn did on (former Jayhawks center Greg) Ostertag,” said Martin, who passed the ball to Robinson. “That was great. Go look that up on YouTube.

Somehow, he remembered that result better than his only experience at Mizzou against Kansas: The Jayhawks defeated the Tigers 93-87 in the “Showdown For Relief” exhibition game at Sprint Center in 2017, a sold-out affair that raised around $2 million for hurricane relief.

(The game also might be remembered for a quirky trivia point: It proved to be the highlight of the Michael Porter Jr. “era” for MU. Porter scoring 21 points in 23 minutes only to miss most of the season with a back injury and enter the NBA Draft early.)

“I can’t remember the outcome,” Martin said with a subtle grin, “but I know it was a lot of money raised.”

You could surmise there is a more substantial reason Martin was less than demonstrative about the resumption of a series more than a century in the making that has been in snooze mode since MU left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference after the 2011-12 season.

Most of all, because the future is now: Entering his third season at MU, Martin is trying to get the Tigers on track toward their first NCAA Tournament win since 2010 with a team picked 13th in the 14-team SEC despite returning seven of its top nine scorers from last season.

True to himself, he paused before answering a question about that Thursday but ultimately said, “If we finished 13th in this league, then this would be one of the best leagues to ever lace them up in all of college basketball (history).”

With one caveat.

“If we’re healthy,” said Martin, whose second season at MU was jumbled by the season-ending injury to Jontay Porter.

While he’s not above using that prediction for some motivation, he also made the point that fixating on such stuff mostly is “a lot of time and energy off my clock.”

Just like it would have been to try to engage Self in playing, which may or may not have been productive, anyway. Self had been so adamant about it for so long that Martin seemed to wonder how much he was on board now.

While crediting both sides for making this resumption happen after a “lot of talk” that it would never happen again, Martin added, “I would like to think (Self) had to agree at some point, ‘Let’s try to make this happen.’”

One way or another, it’s going to now — a development Martin relishes but didn’t exactly campaign for, especially with so much more to focus on first.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.