Updated: Aug 26
Photo credited to Colter Peterson, email@example.com
When Cuonzo Martin was hired as Mizzou's Basketball head coach on March 15, 2017 expectations were high. Missouri men's basketball had become a bottom dweller program during Kim Anderson's tenure as head coach. A return to national prominence was demanded by the fan base, and with Martin's first recruiting class, the future looked promising and exciting.
In fact, Martin's first recruiting class looked like a grand slam. It included the 2nd rated high school player in the country, Michael Porter, Jr., along with his five star younger brother, power forward Jontay Porter, and four star center Jermiah Tillman. Adding these recruits to a roster which already included Kassius Robertson, Jordan Geist, Jordan Barnett, and Kevin Puryear, had many fans talking about a school first Final Four appearance.
But now as Cuonzo Martin enters the fifth year of his seven year contract as Mizzou's Head Coach, all he has to show for the early promise is two brief NCAA Tournament appearances and one 20 win season. Although Mizzou is no longer a bottom dweller in the SEC, but is at best, just a middle of the pack SEC program.
To be fair, it's not all Martin's fault. Injuries have been a bugaboo throughout Counzo's time at Missouri. For instance, the Porter brothers tenure on the Tiger roster were marked by injury. Michael hardly played any while at Mizzou, and Jontay only played one year before his college career ended due to injury before the start of his sophomore year.
Nevertheless, Mizzou's return to national prominence is still an unfulfilled goal. The last three years the Tigers' record has been 15-17, 16-16, and 16-10, finishing in the SEC during those three years at 12th, 10th, and 7th. Most preseason SEC polls have the Tigers finishing in the lower half of the conference for 2021-22. Not at all what the fan base had in mind when Martin arrived.
Now, Martin is looking at four challenges facing him as he enters the 2021-22 season:
(1) Only two players are returning who saw significant playing time last year, Kobe Brown and Jevon Pickett. The top four scorers and five of the top six in minutes are gone. Martin's new roster includes five freshman, only one of which is rated four stars, and four incoming transfers.
(2) With the graduation of Jermiah Tillman, Mizzou doesn't have a proven center on the roster. The big 7’-3” sophomore Jordan Wilmore has seen little playing time, and 6’-8” Yaya Keita is a true freshman.
(3) Mizzou faces it most challenging non-conference schedule since Martin became coach. The schedule includes not only Illinois, but also SMU, possibly Florida State, Wichita State, Utah, and Kansas.
(4) Finally, Cuonzo Martin has a new boss. Diseree Reed-Francois was named Athletic Director on August 8th, replacing Jim Sterk, who hired Martin in 2017.
So the question becomes, is Cuonzo Martin's fifth season at Mizzou his make or break year? And if it is, what would the Tigers need to do this season in order for Martin to get an extension. These questions are not easy to answer.
It would seem for recruiting purposes, an extension for Coach Martin would be needed after the 2021-22 season. Not extending him would not send a good message to potential recruits.
What would the Tigers need to accomplish this year? A win against Kansas would definitely help. However, I believe a return to the NCAA Tournament and a win in this year's tournament would be enough for Diseree Reed-Francois to extend Cuonzo Martin. Much less than this, would make Reed-Francois’ decision a tough one.
Listen, I don't mean to come across as doom and gloom for the Tigers this year. The transfer class of Amari Davis, Jarron Coleman, DeJuan Gordon, and Ronnie DeGray III looks solid. Coleman was the MAC Rookie of the Year, Davis is a two-time All Horizon League guard, and Gordon was a starter at Kansas State. Coleman, Davis, and DeGray, all made significant contributions during Mizzou's 78-68 win vs Central Michigan on Tuesday.
Also, I don't necessarily believe Reed-Francois is looking to replace to Martin. I believe she fully backs Martin, at least at this point.
The key seems to be how much the freshman class of Anton Brookshire, Yaya Keita, Travon Brazile, Sean Durugordon, and Kaleb Brown will develop and be able to contribute. Only one game into the season, it's too early to know.
Coach Martin doesn't have an easy task ahead of him this year. With the current roster, winning 20 games and making the NCAA Tournament will be a challenge. Nonetheless, I still believe Cuonzo Martin is the right man to lead the Tigers back to national prominence.