It’s been a weird couple of months in Columbia, Missouri. Weird in a good way, though. A really good way. Let’s talk it out.
On March 5th, Kim Anderson was fired as head coach of the Tigers, a position he held from 2014-2017. In those three seasons, he was 27-68. That isn’t great. He only won 10 games once, and literally did not win a true road game. Not one. The program was also plagued with transfers, suspensions, penalties, and low attendance during his tenure. Anderson was a good person. But not all good people are good basketball coaches. It made sense for him to leave.
There had been rumblings throughout the season about who would replace Anderson (his firing was almost inevitable as the team continued to struggle). Tom Crean, Gregg Marshall, Kevin Keatts, any coach that had a chance to leave his school was a target.
In the end, Missouri AD Jim Sterk got his guy. Cuonzo Martin resigned as head coach at California on March 15th, and accepted the Missouri job that same day. Martin had been a leading candidate from the start, and was probably the coach most consistently mentioned along with the Mizzou job. And when the Tigers came a-calling, Martin answered. And with good reason too. It’s a sensible hire for both parties. Martin is a product of nearby East St. Louis, a place Missouri needs a strong recruiting bond with, and that hasn’t been there in recent years. Martin can (and already has) bring it back. He also has SEC coaching experience. Martin coached at Tennessee from 2011-2014 with a Sweet Sixteen appearance, but was never very comfortable in Knoxville, nor was he at Cal. Missouri is a better fit where he has a chance to really do something special.
And he’s well on his way.
The same day Martin took the job at Missouri, Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar was fired. To the casual fan, this may be totally inconsequential. Ooooooh, but it wasn’t. Shortly after Romar and his staff were cut loose, rumors started flying that Martin had offered former Romar assistant Michael Porter Sr. a spot on his new staff at Missouri. Rumors eventually proved to be true, as Porter Sr. announced his new job with this tweet:
— Michael Porter, Sr. (@coachporter8) March 23, 2017
Many of Martin’s new staff members have made their Twitter profile pictures ferocious looking tigers, a hilarious move of which I am a huge fan.
This is the first domino. The others then began to fall.
Hiring Porter Sr. was a move criticized across the country, because with Porter Sr. came the assumption that his son, 2017 number 1 recruit Michael Porter Jr., would follow. This was the case with Washington, as Lorenzo Romar, who is also Porter Jr.’s godfather, hired Porter Sr. to cement Washington’s chances at landing the 6-10 forward. Martin’s decision to hire Porter Sr. certainly had obvious motivations, but the family had previous ties to Columbia as it was, and it’s not a stretch to say Porter Jr. would have shown interest in Missouri regardless. However, the ethics of hiring high school coaches and family members for recruiting gains is another conversation that we’ll have at another time. Back to Mizzou.
— Michael Porter Jr. (@TheMPJ1) March 24, 2017
Assumptions proved to be correct, as Michael Porter Jr. committed to play basketball at the University of Missouri. I type that out and I still can’t believe it’s real. The best high school player in the country brings a lot to the table for the Tigers. He can handle the ball well for someone his size, and is comfortable playing along the perimeter or at the rim. He solves a lot of the 2016-17 Tigers’ offensive issues. Most importantly, he instantly improves a team that won eight games this past season.
Another domino, but we aren’t done yet.
On April 3rd, Richland (TX) PG C.J. Roberts reaffirmed his commitment to Missouri. Roberts had originally committed in September of 2016 when Kim Anderson was head coach, but after meeting with Martin in late March, announced that he will stay with the program and its new head coach.
For those of you playing along, that’s another domino. (Alright that domino was already there I suppose, but we can confirm it’s still there.)
Porter Jr., in an attempt to recruit more talent to Columbia, 247 Sports top-150 PG (another former Washington commit) Blake Harris and fellow McDonald’s All American SF Kevin Knox to take a visit to Mizzou on the same weekend in hopes to add to the Tigers’ recruiting class. Harris committed on the tail end of the visit with this tweet:
— Blake Harris (@blizzyblake55_) April 9, 2017
Knox recently announced his commitment to fellow SEC school Kentucky, but I don’t consider this a total loss for Missouri, who still made his top five. The program has been so downtrodden in recent years, and since joining the SEC has only made the NCAA Tournament once (in their first season in the conference). With a severe lack of elite talent on the current roster, what the team needs most is strong recruiting. That certainly comes with Porter Jr., but he’ll most likely only be on campus for a year before he heads to the NBA. The Tigers need sustained recruiting success that translates to on-court success. That’s how a strong program is built. It seems obvious, but it’s not easy to actually go out and do. But it feels like the Tigers are on the right path. Missouri missed out on Knox. It hurts, but it’s promising. If Porter Jr.’s year is a success, that proves to other high-level recruits that Martin and Missouri are worth the investment. A player like Knox even considering the Tigers is a sign of good things to come. I digress.
The next development came when Canisius graduate transfer Kassius Robertson announced his commitment to Missouri on May 3rd. The 6-3 guard averaged 16.1 PPG for the Golden Griffins (which honestly might be the coolest mascot in sports), sinking 41% of his shots from behind the arc. And that’s what he’ll bring to the table for Mizzou, a team that shot a dreadful 30.4% from three last season. The number of transfers and grad transfers on the market has been increasing rapidly, and they’re now an important part to building a championship level team. Robertson is by no means a championship-level piece for the Tigers, but is a nice addition for next season and trying to right the ship.
One last domino (for now).
Eat eat! pic.twitter.com/gjX5rb8lGG
— Jeremiah Tilmon (@jeremiahtilmon_) May 16, 2017
247 Sports four-star prospect Jeremiah Tilmon was released from his NLI to Illinois on April 5th, and Missouri immediately became the favorite. Tilmon is from East St. Louis, where Martin is from, and plays for the same high school as Martin did. Like I mentioned earlier, East St. Louis is an important recruiting area for Mizzou and landing the 6-10 center would be a heck of a way to start. It wasn’t necessarily a done deal, as Tilmon met with other schools and keeping his recruitment open before deciding to commit to Mizzou. The Tigers struggled inside against larger opponents last season, and Tilmon (who is likely a multi-year player) will be able to step in and help immediately.
So, over the last two months, the dominos somehow fell perfectly into place for Mizzou. The hype in Columbia, Missouri is very real now, whether it’s justified or not. This will be a very young team bearing heavy expectations set by fans who desperately want something to cheer for again. Are they a championship contender? Not really. But they don’t have to be. They just need to prove that they can win some ball games. An NCAA Tournament appearance is not out of the question, and in fact, with Tilmon recently on board, is looking somewhat likely. But be warned. The SEC will be tough this year with a plethora of likely tournament teams like Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Alabama, and numerous up-and-comers like Auburn, Tennessee and Ole Miss. It won’t be an immediate jump to the top for the Tigers. But there’s real reason to be hopeful for Missouri fans.
This is a big first year in this era of Mizzou basketball. If Cuonzo Martin sees some success in his first year in CoMo, that could snowball into the Tigers once again being the nationally relevant program that they once were. They have no reason not to be. They have the ability to get elite-level talent. Despite the low attendance numbers, there’s a passionate fan base that wants to see some wins. They’re in a big-time conference on a national stage. These are all realities for Missouri, and it feels like they’re right on the cusp of putting it all together, and it happened all in the span of a couple months. While the very sudden hype has let expectations run a little bit wild, it’s not crazy to think that this is the start of a very successful era for Missouri basketball.
Photo via Kansas City Star