Here’s Your Real SEC Coach of the Year: Mizzou’s Cuonzo Martin

Tennessee’s Rick Barnes was voted the SEC Coach of the Year, and he certainly did a terrific job. The Vols come to St. Louis for the SEC Tournament with a 23-15 record overall, went 13-5 in the conference to match Auburn for first place, and KenPom lists Tennessee as the No. 14 team in the nation.

That’s a helluva season for a team that was picked preseason to finish 13th among 14 SEC teams. That nugget is almost always mentioned when touting Barnes for Coach of the Year.

The media know-it-alls said Tennessee would be 13th, one little stair-step up from the cellar floor, but Barnes pulled the Vols away from the basement and kept pushing them all the way to a  first-place tie, so that obviously means he did the best coaching job in the league. His team shocked the SEC by exceeding expectations. He obliterated the damn expectations! It takes a great coach to pull that off. That’s why he’s the obvious choice for Coach of the Year. 

No, not really.

The narrative-shaping prediction of Tennessee being 13th was more of a reflection on the media panel that knew so little and underestimated the Vols. It’s easy to be wrong on predictions — I have plenty of experience — but Coach of the Year votes shouldn’t be based on a team outperforming media forecasts. The media couldn’t possibly be wrong … never. So instead of owning up to shooting nothing but air balls when taking aim at SEC predictions, the media did the usual media thing. Rather than just say, “It’s embarrassing, how could we be so inaccurate?” … The coach is elevated instead. The media wasn’t wrong, you see. The Coach was GREAT.

Barnes did a great coaching job. That’s absolutely true … but not because his team was picked 13th … and not because he made the media panel look uninformed and foolish. The first-place tie, and the 23 wins, and the sweep of Kentucky, and the victory over Purdue was sufficient.

No disrespect to Barnes, but I thought Cuonzo Martin did the best coaching job in the SEC this season. If you will indulge me, I’ll offer some quick-hit reasons that explain my opinion:

1. Martin took over a collapsed Mizzou program that had collapsed to the bottom of the SEC and rated among the worst in the nation. A downbound, depressing, dying program that went 27-68 overall in three seasons under coach Kim Anderson. Mizzou’s winning percentage with Anderson, .284, ranked 324th among 347 teams.

2. Martin transformed Missouri basketball, rebuilt Missouri basketball, revived the energy and enthusiasm for Missouri basketball … and he did this in less than one full season. It’s awesome that Tennessee finished tied for first after being picked to finish 13th. But Martin inherited a lost, almost abandoned program that wallowed at 324th in the nation and he got them to 20 wins and a 10-8 record in the SEC. And he produced that 10-8 record in the nation’s fourth-best conference. Martin moved Mizzou up the conference ladder at a time when the SEC was at its strongest point since being ranked 4th in 2012.

3. Missouri was 8-46 in SEC play during Kim Anderson’s three seasons. Martin won 10 SEC games in his first season.

And in a league that was more difficult than what Anderson faced. Call me a homer, I don’t mind … but when a dude wins 10 conference games in his first season in charge of a program that had won only eight in three  seasons — 10 wins in 18 games, compared to 8 wins in 54 games — I think that’s special.

4.  Kim Anderson was 0-27 in SEC road games in three seasons. Martin went 4-5 on the SEC roadways in his first season.

5. Barnes is in his third season at Tennessee. He inherited a team that had a 16-16 record and a No. 90 KenPom rating the season before he was named coach. Martin took command of a Mizzou program that went 8-24 the season before he got there. As for the KenPom ratings, in Anderson’s three seasons the Tigers were ranked (in order) No. 192, then 159th, and then No. 156. Going into the SEC Tournament Missouri is No. 39 at KenPom.  This is the highest the Tigers have been since being No. 25 at KenPom at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, when Frank Haith was coach.

6. When it becomes official on selection Sunday, this will be Mizzou’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2013. Tennessee last played in the NCAA tournament in 2014 , when coach Cuonzo Martin led the Vols to the Sweet 16.

7. Missouri ranks 49th nationally in offensive efficiency and 44th in defensive efficiency. (KenPom ratings.) The Tigers haven’t been to 50 nationally in both categories since the 2009-2010 season under coach Mike Anderson. By the way, in Kim Anderson’s three seasons that resulted in dismissal, here’s where Mizzou ranked in offensive efficiency (in order): 220th … 172nd … 230th. And here are he defensive rankings in his three seasons:  No. 166 … 169 … and 97.

8. Martin’s instant rescue of Mizzou basketball was achieved despite the stunning injury to No. 1 national recruit Michael Porter Jr., who played two minutes in the first game before being shut down to have back surgery. If Porter plays in the SEC Tournament, it would be his first game action since Nov. 10.

9. Martin coached his team to 20 wins and a fourth-place tie in the SEC despite losing THREE point guards. Blake Harris transferred, C.J. Roberts transferred, and Terrence Phillips was dismissed from the team.

10. So when you hear someone say Mizzou had a top-five national recruiting class that featured five blue-chip recruits and that explains Martin’s immediate success … well, you might want to remind them that three of his heralded recruits (Porter Jr., Harris, Roberts) played a combined 197 minutes during the regular season.

11. The other two highly touted recruits, freshmen Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon, improved dramatically as the season went along.  If you believe coaching has a lot to do with that, then Martin gets some credit for his teaching. J. Porter was voted to the All-Freshman SEC team and named Co-Sixth Man of the year.

12. By the end of the regular season, Mizzou was down to seven healthy players … and still reached 20 wins and a winning mark in the SEC. The Tigers went 7-3 down the stretch.

13. Martin pushed senior Jordan Barnett into becoming a much better all-around player. Consider it done. Barnett could score when playing for Kim Anderson, but he’d never played defense or rebounded with such a level of ferocity until Martin began coaching him. And junior Kevin Puryear improved in a number of ways and had his best offensive rating in a season at Mizzou.

14. Kassius Robertson a transfer from Canisius, had a marvelous season. He had a rep for being a good shooter for a smaller program in a lesser league, but Robertson came to Mizzou and turned into the best type of player: a talent, and a workhorse. He played 94.2 percent of the possible minutes during SEC action, averaged made 44 percent of his threes, averaged 16.5 points per game, and took on the responsibility of playing point guard, an unfamiliar position, just to help the team. Robertson earned first-team All-SEC honors, and few if any expected this kind of season from him. He thrived under Martin’s leadership.

15. The Missouri fan base eroded during three seasons of basketball despair, but when Martin took the job and began landing coveted recruits, Mizzou Arena became a place of energy and  joy again. Basketball revenue increased substantially. Basketball tickets were a hot item. Mizzou Arena became a tough environment for visiting teams. KenPom rates Mizzou Arena as the 14th best home-court advantage in the nation. And if you went to some games over the three previous seasons you witnessed how the place had turned into a morgue. Martin brought Mizzou Arena back filling it with fans, pride and noise.

Martin’s all-encompassing quick fix of this Mizzou program — through turmoil, adversity, unexpected injuries — was one of the most remarkable coaching jobs I’ve seen.

Thanks for reading …


More: Kassius Roberston Deserves Thanks for Keeping Mizzou Afloat This Season