Is Cuonzo Martin changing the conversation about his future as Missouri’s basketball coach?
It has been said and written: Mizzou is playing better basketball, showing improvement in recent weeks after suffering humiliating losses to UMKC, Liberty, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas.
The Tigers looked good and played well in Saturday’s 70-66 road victory at Texas A&M. The success lifted MU out of a four-game losing streak that could/should have featured at least two wins.
There have been three close-call losses by a combined five points since the Tigers were run out of Fayetteville in a 44-point loss to Arkansas on Jan. 12. The almost-wins are frequently cited in the Mizzou-is-improving narrative.
But if we’re going to go there we must also point out Mizzou’s pattern of blowing leads in games. The Tigers led Texas A&M by 13 points at home and lost. They were up 63-49 in the second half at Alabama and lost by 10. At home against No. 1 Auburn, Mizzou had an early 10-point lead and overall had a lead for 26 minutes 38 seconds – only to fall by one. Missouri had a lead for 16+ minutes overall vs. Florida last week, including a nine-point advantage with 8:04 left in the second half. The Gators came back for a one-point win at Mizzou Arena.
Just my opinion, but this talk of close losses as evidence of progress should be waved off. You don’t get medals for losing by an extra-slim margin when you give away leads in those games … comfortable leads in some instances.
I’m all in favor of Missouri playing better basketball and winning more often. And certainly there has been better basketball – through stretches of games – that offer encouragement. But careful about parsing thin losses in games the Tigers held in their paws. A loss is a loss is a loss. And MU is 2-6 since defeating Alabama at home on Jan. 8.
The win at Texas A&M was a positive step, but the Tigers are 9–13 overall and 3-6 in the SEC. They’ve moved up to No. 127 nationally in the KenPom rankings after sliding as low as No. 172 in mid-January. That’s progress, yes. But sitting at No. 127 isn’t particularly bragworthy.
Here’s what I think: it’s OK to look for positives. It’s OK to note more intense competitiveness. It’s OK to point out how guys like Amari Davis and Trevor Brazile have come on to provide good performances. It’s OK to praise Kobe Brown when he does what he’s supposed to do – lead Mizzou to a win, as he did at Texas A&M. But Brown hasn’t done that enough this season, and the Tigers are still way too clumsy with the basketball this season, ranking No. 330 nationally in turnover percentage. And the blood is angered by Mizzou’s mistakes in close games.
And it’s OK to look ahead and conclude that Missouri will likely have a similar roster – in terms of overall talent – next season. Martin has scrambled to put together rosters and rotations. That can’t be blamed on anyone else. Fan apathy has set in, and that’s a real problem. Those who have turned on Martin won’t change their views. They’ll continue to pine for a new coach. And they’re allowed to feel that way and shouldn’t be shamed. It’s been a frustrating season, and a rising level of anger is understandable.
Martin does, however, have a chance to change the conversation. His team’s next two games are winnable challenges at Vanderbilt (4-6) and at home against Ole Miss (3-7.) Two wins, and the Tigers are 5-6 in the conference. Including Vandy and Ole Miss, five of MU’s remaining nine SEC games will be played against teams that have a combined 21-38 record in the conference.
Martin and Mizzou can show – or if you wish, reaffirm – actual improvement by winning games down the stretch. The final record won’t be very good, but a reasonably strong finish will give the Missouri administration something to grab onto when explaining a Martin return for 2022-2023.
After taking over a hideously off-track program and leading it to two appearances in the NCAA Tournament in his first four seasons – with a record 10 games over .500 – Martin can survive a losing season. No one is downplaying losing; Missouri should be in a better position in Martin’s fifth year. But a down season in his fifth year shouldn’t automatically lead to dismissal given Martin’s record over his first four seasons.
Among objective onlookers, a solid case can be made to advocate a coaching change. And a solid case can be made to give Martin a fifth season. (I’m strongly inclined to support that, but let’s see how the Tigers play from here on out.)
I don’t believe Missouri athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois is of the heart and mind to dismiss Martin. The better he does over the final nine SEC games and the conference tournament, it becomes easier for Reed-Francois to defend the decision to retain the coach.
A total collapse the rest of the way makes it impossible for Martin to change the conversation by layering it with optimism. And Reed-Francois won’t sleep easy while thinking of ways to explain staying the course. Mizzou basketball doesn’t inspire much fan-base passion. But that passion is clearly channeled into the demand to find a new men’s basketball coach. How much that matters remains to be seen. It’s a tough situation. Winning would help.
MOVING ON …
We have to admire St. Louis U.
Coach Travis Ford, his staff and players have done a fantastic job of improving gradually but surely over many weeks since the season-ending loss of ace scorer Javonte Perkins to a torn knee ligament just before Halloween.
The Billikens (16-6) have won five straight games and eight of their last 10 to move into second place in the Atlantic 10 Conference at 7-2. In the earliest days of the season they were ranked No. 104 nationally at KenPom. In mid-November, they were No. 99. They were stuck in the same vicinity (No. 90) in the second week of December. And as recently as three-plus weeks ago, SLU was No. 81.
Now? After Saturday’s impressive 11-point home win over Dayton, the Billikens moved up to No. 50. This puts them in range of making a case for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. (Winning the conference tournament is the automatic way to qualify.) I think it’s way too early to assess SLU’s NCAA chances. For now, let’s just appreciate the positive trajectory. KenPom projects victories in SLU’s next four games: two against LaSalle, two vs. St. Bonaventure. If it shakes out that way, SLU would be 11-2 in the conference heading into the Feb. 19 road game at first-place Davidson.
Other observations on the Billikens:
1) This is nothing new, because Yuri Collins has been a terrific basketball player for quite a while. But his performance was simply ridiculous during SLU’s current five-game win streak. Playing an average of nearly 36 minutes per game, the sophomore point guard has averaged 16.6 points, 10.6 assists, 6 rebounds and 3.2 steals. In the five games he had an overall shooting percentage of .519, including 39% from three-point range. And he made 20 of 21 free throws. At KenPom, Collins is ranked No. 3 nationally in assist percentage and is 82nd among 2,200 players in steals percentage.
2) For the second consecutive season Coach Ford has established a strong foundation in offense and defense, ranking in the Top 100 nationally in both categories. KenPom has the Billikens at No. 46 in offensive efficiency and 63rd in defensive efficiency.
3) Last season, with Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French crashing the boards, SLU ranked 9th nationally at KenPom with a 35.8 percent rate in offensive rebounding. (Meaning that they retrieved their own misses 35.8 percent of the time.) Though French and Goodwin departed after last season, the Billikens are still rated among the nation’s best at offensive rebounding, ranking 12th at KenPom with a retrieval percentage of 35.7. The team’s two highest-rated offensive rebounders are Marten Linssen and Francis Okoro.
4) The environment was outstanding during Saturday’s clambake at Chaifetz Arena. The noise clearly invaded Dayton’s collective mind and it made a difference in the outcome. No surprise. KenPom rates Chaifetz as the 11th best home court advantage in the nation so far this season.
5) I like this: Unlike many teams, SLU does not depend on the three-point shot to score. It is treacherous to be overly dependent on the three, which leaves a team vulnerable when the 3-pointers aren’t falling. Only 26 percent of the Bills’ points have come on threes this season; via KenPom that ranks 313th in the nation. SLU scores 53.8 percent of its points on two-point baskets. Better yet, the Billikens are 30th nationally in percentage of overall points (21.3) scored on free throws.
6) Coach Ford is coaching one of the youngest teams in the nation with an average experience level of 1.01 seasons. That ranks 343rd in the nation on the list of most experienced teams.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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