Tiger fans are excited and for good reason. Landing the overall number one basketball recruit in the nation is not a headline they’re accustomed to seeing. And no question that Porter will immediately inject life into his team, just as he’s injected life into his fan base. But despite his obvious talent, if Missouri turns into an immediate tournament team in 2018, Michael Porter Jr. might not be the only, or even primary reason why.
The frenzy surrounding the Porter basketball family rapidly stole attention from the hiring of Cuonzo Martin by Missouri, though the long-term impact of that move could prove dramatically greater. Both Martin and the university are eager to diminish their shared reputation of preferring short-lived tenures. Martin is coming to his third school in four years and Missouri is on its fourth head basketball coach since 2011. Disastrous on-court results could supersede this shared desire to foster a long uninterrupted coaching run, but Martin is poised to turn the Tiger program around, and if Porter does prove (as is expected) to be a one-and-done player, then he will serve as more of a catalyst for the turnaround, while Martin will be its architect.
Martin took on these challenges with exhausting meticulous strategy. His 2008 team played tenacious defense but was devoid of true scorers. To remake his team, Martin addressed these flaws through the lens of his coaching philosophy: defense can be taught and perfected through hard work and practice, but an effective offense requires natural playmakers.
Martin looked to transfers to find experience and playmakers. He brought in Adam Leonard, a pure shooter from Eastern Kentucky, big man Caleb Patterson from Colorado, and JuCo guard Jermaine Mallett, whose ability to drive put constant pressure on opposing defenses. This new talent, combined with 2008’s returning All-Freshman guard Kyle Weems, gave the Bears offensive threats that the previous year’s team desperately lacked.
Martin’s 2009 team continued to play his brand of ferocious defense, but now they brought the offensive firepower needed to compete in the Missouri Valley Conference. MSU matched 2008’s 11 wins in their first 12 games and would ultimately collect more than twice that year’s win total, finishing the season 24-12.
Martin’s 2009 team won against more talented teams like St. Louis University and Arkansas State, playing both on the road. In fact, Martin relished playing games in hostile environments, believing his brand of defensive basketball worked well away from the comforts of the home court. The idea is that shooters can get rattled when facing a raucous opposing crowd, but the unfriendly energy can more easily motivate a disruptive defensive player.
“If you have a lot of talent or less talent,” Martin said, “if you have the mental toughness to be able to compete on the road, you have a chance to be successful.”
The similarities to Martin’s current situation are exciting and too many to ignore. He’s inheriting a losing team who played every game tough but lacked scoring leaders. He has already begun infusing talent in a big way with Michael Porter Jr., and by courting Kim Anderson recruit C.J. Roberts to keep his commitment to Missouri. He is looking to shore up the inside with current Illinois commit Jeremiah Tilmon.
Martin is following his own formula to success. The returning players for Missouri have the aggression to fit Martin’s bulldog defensive style, and if Martin’s recruiting luck continues, they’ll have scoring options the likes of which no Missouri team has seen since at least the days of Marcus Denmon and Kim English.
The only thing left is the results. We won’t know until November if Martin’s philosophy is effective in Mizzou Arena, but there is ample reason to have hope. With once-in-a-generation talent like that of Michael Porter Jr., there’s little question that Missouri will be better next year. But with a well thought out cast of supporting players and a proven winning strategy, Tiger fans should hold confidence that this team will not just be improved, it will be successful.
Missouri’s 2017-18 team will be busy next March. They will make the NCAA Tournament and they’ll go deep. Get ready to see your Tigers in the Sweet Sixteen … and soon.