- Cuonzo Martin took on a big job when he became Missouri's basketball coach, and landing Michael Porter Jr. is a key part to making the rebuild a success.
Cuonzo Martin won’t take all the credit for Michael Porter Jr.
He took a job at Missouri. He hired an out-of-work assistant coach, who happened to be the father of the No. 1 player in the class of 2017. He showcased his new program’s assets, its facilities, its people, its location in the very town where Porter grew up. And so the prized 18-year-old committed to the Tigers, injecting a shot of life into a basketball team that had been listless for more than three years.
What Martin should take credit for, though, is the Michael Porter Jr. Effect.
When the Tigers’ new coach left Cal for Missouri in March, it was to inherit a roster that had been riddled with transfers and went 8-23 the previous season. "I don't want to make it sound like we worked relentless hours,” he says of recruiting Porter, and he stresses that to him, taking a new job has little to do with the program’s record the year before.
Instead, Martin looked at the infrastructure, and he proceeded as if he were recruiting for Kentucky, not Missouri. In the weeks that followed, he retained guard C.J. Roberts, former Tigers coach Kim Anderson’s lone four-star commit in the class of 2017. On April 9, Missouri added Blake Harris, a four-star point guard who, like Porter, had been committed to Washington. On May 3, graduate transfer Kassius Robertson, a wing who averaged 16.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists at Canisius last year, announced he’d committed to Missouri. And on May 15, the Tigers landed Jeremiah Tilmon, yet another four-star recruit. The center from East St. Louis had been committed to Illinois before the school's coaching change, and he picked Missouri over its former Big 12 rival Kansas.
As it stands, the Tigers’ recruiting class is ranked seventh in the country by Scout.com, and that’s before the team learns whether the younger Porter brother, Jontay, will reclassify to play next season. (Because Jontay, who’s committed to Missouri, hasn’t signed a National Letter of Intent, Martin can’t speak about their relationship or his looming decision.)
Sure, the complete transformation of Missouri’s recruiting class—and by extension, its roster—came about in the wake of Porter joining the Tigers. Without him, Martin would have inherited a years-long rebuild. Instead, it took weeks. But without Martin, it’s impossible to say which, if any, recruits beyond the Porter brothers might have chosen the Tigers (or, in the case of Roberts, remained with them). Porter will likely play only a season for Missouri. Few, if any, members of the rest of the team’s recruiting class can say the same—meaning they’re committing not just to a year with their class’s best player, but likely to a few more without him.
That’s Martin’s doing, even if he won’t cop to any kind of unique sales pitch. He’s confident. He loves the facilities. There’s tradition at Missouri, even if you have to go back more than a decade to find it. And, perhaps most importantly, Martin is emphatic that he plans to work to keep players from Missouri and the St. Louis and Kansas City metro areas from getting away. The Porters were easy; their father is on his staff, and their aunt coaches Missouri’s women’s team, whose roster features their two sisters. Tilmon, though, was a much bigger swing. The Tigers have historically struggled to recruit in St. Louis and East St. Louis, which is Martin’s hometown, but in the past few years, they’ve nabbed Terry Beckner Jr., a top football player, and now Tilmon. Making an inroad so quickly in the eastern part of the state is one of Martin’s best early moves.
Missouri’s recruiting class, apart from Jontay, who’s finishing up on the AAU circuit, is largely complete. Kevin Puryear, Terrence Phillips and Jordan Barnett, the three top contributors from last year’s Tigers squad, will return, but at least four four- and five-star freshmen should see big minutes come fall. That’s how the team that won just three conference games a year ago now has 25-1 odds in Vegas to win the national title in 2018. Let’s put that in perspective: In the last 10 years, only eight teams that won fewer than 10 games in a season have gone on to so much as make the tournament the next year. (Only one, Minnesota, plays in a Power 5 conference.) Of those teams, not one advanced past the round of 64. Now, Missouri is projected to have better odds of winning it all than Florida, Villanova, Michigan, UCLA, Gonzaga…the list goes on.
Of course, there are 10 months and a million potential disasters between now and April. Martin now has to form a team out of the players Anderson left behind and his new recruits, a task with a level of inherent awkwardness. Hi, guys, I’m excited to coach you, but I’m also turning this thing upside-down. Martin doesn’t view it that way, though. “When I took the job, the most important thing was the guys on our current roster,” he says. “Those were the most important, and they're still very important. Now we all become one family. It's not a case of you have two teams, let's try to make these two teams fit as one.
"It's also our job for the returning players to welcome the new guys in. That's what you should do regardless of who's coming in. Great programs, they just pass down through time and over the years."