Mizzou’s Cuonzo Martin is Deserving of SEC Coach of the Year

Mizzou basketball coach Cuonzo Martin is making a strong case for selection as the SEC Coach of the Year. Unless his Tigers fall and fade in their final five regular-season SEC games, I don’t know how the honor could go to another man.

The SEC has plenty of excellent coaches that have pulled the league up in the national conference power rankings.

My opinion of Martin’s inspiring coaching performance in his first season at Mizzou was reinforced Tuesday nigh when the Tigers dug in to save a win after a frantic comeback rush by No. 21 Texas A&M.

The final score at Mizzou Arena was 62-58.

There are other box scores to look at.

There are report cards too.

When Mizzou and Texas A&M went at it the first time this season, the Tigers lost by 11 points in a MMA-style hoops event at College Station. It was a night of bruises, a night of embarrassment. For MU, it was facedown on the playground. It was a tough education. It was about the more experienced Texas A&M big men bullying the inexperienced Missouri big guys. The Tigers were frazzled. They’d stepped on rattlesnakes.  They scored only 49 points.

Freshman Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter have the height and length and athleticism necessary to engage in such a physical challenge … but didn’t have time to get into the ring and put in the necessary number of training rounds. The Aggies have the sixth biggest team in the nation, and Mizzou couldn’t deal with it.

Tilmon and Porter combined for 9 points in that beatdown,  all by Tilmon. Adding their shooting totals together, the freshmen missed 13 of 17 shots, and got only two attempts at the free-throw line. Tilmon fouled out. Porter played only 21 shaky minutes.

It was much the same way with Mizzou’s prime scorers.  Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett managed  only 16 points combined,  flinging 14 missed shots in their 17 attempts.

Let’s return to Tuesday.

What did the Tigers learn from their first altercation with the Aggies?

And what would Martin and his coaches teach them?

If the Mizzou staff could get Porter and Tilmon prepared for Round Two, if the freshmen learned from their mistakes, gained confidence and got better through coaching and instruction, it would be a great sign for the program.

I’m not saying that Tilmon and Portay got through Tuesday’s victory without missteps and mishaps, and their stat lines were far from perfect. But Tilmon didn’t get into foul trouble, and was on the floor making big plays at the end. Tilmon reversed a trend by getting to the foul line nine times. Together, Porter and Tilmon combined for 25 points and were part of a disruptive defense that filched 10 steals and caused 16 turnovers.

This time around, Robertson and Barnett combined for 31 points, made 12 of 23 shots, and came up with three steals each.

This time, the Texas A&M bigs backed down and couldn’t impose their muscle or their will.

Can Cuonzo Martin coach?

Damn right he can coach.

Look at how Coach CM got his team — especially Tilmon and Porter — ready to rumble against a fierce foe that had shoved them around in College Station.

The Tigers have made a remarkable transformation already … in Martin’s first season … and not even a full season at that.

The Tigers have won five in a row. That hasn’t happened for a MU team since 2012.

With Mizzou 8-5 in the SEC, Martin has matched Kim Anderson’s three-season total for conference victories.

Anderson won 8 of 54 SEC games.

Martin has won 8 of 13 SEC games.

Anderson’s Missouri teams were 0-10 vs. ranked opponents, losing by an average of 16 points in the 10 games.

Martin’s Tigers are 3-1 against ranked teams this season.

Martin has Mizzou sitting handsomely in the overall Kenpom rankings at No. 36.

Anderson’s three seasons, here’s Mizzou’s annual finish in the Kenpom rankings: 192 … 159 … 156.

It’s no surprise to see Mizzou ranked 44th in the nation (among 351 teams) in defensive efficiency. That’s what Martin-led teams are known for.

Here’s a pleasant surprise: Mizzou ranks 42nd in the nation in offensive efficiency.

Whoa. Even Cuonzo fans like me wondered about his offense. Could it be something more than mediocre? Except for the 21 percent turnover rate, the answer is affirmative.

Martin knew he had the shooters. So his offense is set up to take advantage of the deep-range capability; nearly 39 percent of Mizzou’s floor shots this season are from 3-point distance. And only 39 teams hoist the three-ball more frequently. And 37.4 percent of Mizzou’s entire points-scored total have been produced by three pointers; that’s the 42nd highest percentage in the nation.

Quick question: after the past three forgettable, miserable seasons, did you think you’d look at the standings this morning and see Missouri (8-5) ahead of Kentucky (6-6) in the SEC standings? Or ahead of South Carolina, a Final Four team last season?

The Tigers are in 4th place in the nation’s fourth-ranked conference. An improved conference. The SEC was rated either fifth, sixth or seventh among all conferences nationally over the past five seasons. So even though the competition is more rugged in the SEC than its been since 2012, Martin’s team is thriving.

And the Tigers are doing all of this without their best player (Michael Porter Jr.) or the highly recruited point guard (Blake Harris) who was supposed to run the offense before getting into a pout over having to earn playing time. He transferred.

Truth is, I’m not sure I would have predicted 18-8 overall and 8-5 in the deep SEC for Mizzou even with Michael Porter Jr. in the lineup all season.

Other coaches in the SEC have done outstanding work. This isn’t intended to slight them.

But did any of the coaches raise a lifeless basketball program from the dead in less than one season?

No. And that’s exactly what Cuonzo Martin has done in his first year as the top Tiger.

Because of Coach Martin, Missouri basketball matters again, it is worth watching again, and it is worth caring about again.

–Bernie

More: Cuonzo Martin’s Evolving Offense Has Been the Key to Mizzou’s Turnaround