I was skeptical of Cuonzo Martin.
It’s not that I felt Martin was a bad hire. He wasn’t. But I felt like we knew what Martin brought to the table, and his ceiling was therefore limited. He had been a college basketball coach for nine years prior to his arrival in Columbia. He reached the NCAA Tournament twice, and basically sprouted 18-25 win seasons each of the past eight years.
He was good. Solid. Unspectacular. But, maybe most importantly, he was old school.
Listen to Cuonzo speak for any amount of time and you’re bound to come away with a certain takeaway: that dude is tough. He’s a hard-nosed, defensive-minded coach whose teams take on that same personality. That’s good, but the offense left a lot to be desired. And that can make for a frustrating brand of basketball. Quality defense, low-scoring games, and often out-gunned by teams with more offensive firepower.
It’s good. But it’s limited. Fans appreciate the winning, but it always felt like there was a glass ceiling for that kind of team, unless you become so good at that brand of basketball that you become Virginia. That takes years. Oh, and it takes Tony Bennett, too.
So the question became clear: Will Cuonzo evolve? If he could, and the offense become something more modern, Martin could break through his glass ceiling. His defense isn’t going anywhere. That toughness isn’t leaving.
But the offense, man, that offense.
And then there were signs. Signs of change. Signs of progress.
The first sign came when Cuonzo hired former Iowa State assistant Cornell Mann to run what the coaches referred to as a “pro-style” offense. That certainly sounded interesting. It sounded like a bit of an evolution. But would it actually take shape? How often have we heard coaches say one thing in the offseason, and do something entirely different when the games get rolling? So, I was dubious.
Until I saw it.
Martin did it. He changed his offense. He listened to the doubters. He understood his shortcomings. And he evolved. What we’ve seen at Missouri this season is a result of Cuonzo Martin’s evolution of a basketball coach, and that shouldn’t go overlooked.
There are still staples of what he’s run in the past, but he’s adopted the 3-point shooting, ball-moving offense that Fred Hoiberg ran at Iowa State… Along with Cornell Mann. The Tigers are chucking up threes, moving the ball around the horn, and playing four-out basketball. In other words, Cuonzo Martin’s offense has joined the 21st century.
In the past, roughly 30-35% of the shots in a Cuonzo Martin offense have come beyond the arc. This year, 45% of Mizzou’s field goal attempts are 3-pointers. That’s quite the jump. And when you make three-pointers at a top 35 clip in the country (which Missouri is), it’s a heck of a gameplan. Mizzou’s personnel called for more three-point shots. Martin knew this. His assistants knew this. And they built an offense to support it.
The three-pointers are the biggest change for Mizzou, but they aren’t the only change. Ball movement is also up for the Tigers. Missouri’s assist rate is the highest of any Cuonzo Martin-coached team.
Cuonzo was always going to improve Mizzou’s defense. That’s his staple. His recruiting chops were never in question. And his personality and character were always going to play in mid-Missouri.
The question was the offense. And the offense evolved.
Because of Cuonzo’s evolution offensively, his ceiling as a college basketball has grown. The man who was once seen as a consistent 20-23 win coach could legitimately become one of the better coaches in the SEC. But don’t take my word for it. The improvement isn’t hard to find at Missouri.
Cuonzo Martin has taken a team which ranked 334th in effective field goal percentage, 333rd in 3-point percentage and 230th in offensive efficiency a year ago and turned it into a squad which ranks 30th in effective field goal percentage, 32nd in 3-point percentage and 35th in offensive efficiency.
Basically, Cuonzo took a bottom 20 offense in the country, added a few players, and turned it into a top 35 offense in the country. He did so in roughly six months time on the job. And he did so while completely changing his offensive philosophy.
Not bad for a tough, hard-nosed, defensive-minded head coach.