Rick Barnes took home the award with 10 votes, Bruce Pearl came in second with four, and Cuonzo Martin got one vote. One. Vote.
Barnes and Pearl getting the most votes isn’t surprising with Tennessee and Auburn finishing as co-conference champions. The boring narrative of needing to win the conference to be in serious consideration for the award lives on. But did they deserve it? First let’s look at preseason expectations for all three teams.
Rick Barnes actually makes a good case for CoY. He did exceed expectations, but not as much as many give him credit for. The team returned four of its five starters this year. The one they lost was leading scorer Robert Hubbs III but they brought in graduate transfer James Daniel III, who averaged 27.1 ppg last season. Their recruiting class was weak, the highest ranked recruit they brought in was #126. Even so, a 16-win team returned 80% of its starting five and the new graduate transfer is better than the graduate. ESPN preseason ranked them 49th overall and Athlon Sports magazine predicted them to finish 11th in the SEC. So they did a little bit better than that.
The other Tigers came into the season with all four of their top scorers from last season returning. They were also able to bring in three top 100 recruits. They had the most wins last season of any team we’re analyzing (18), so add that in and you’ve got some promise for the season. ESPN preseason ranked them 35th overall and Athlon Sports magazine predicted them to finish 5th in the SEC.
Mizzou obviously came into the season with a ton of preseason hope. Notice I said hope, not expectations. The offseason kicked off with the Cuonzo Martin hire, and the game changed from there. They brought in MPJ, the best recruit in the country. They took Jeremiah Tilmon away from Illinois. Another top 100 recruit, Blake Harris, also committed. A sharp shooting graduate transfer came in Kassius Robertson. As a finale, Jontay Porter reclassified to close out the year’s recruiting class. The class ranked 8th in the nation. Even with all that, it didn’t convince many experts. I mean how much can an 8-win team really improve? Not much, many believed. ESPN preseason ranked them 71st overall and Athlon Sports magazine predicted them to finish 8th in the SEC.
So now that we’ve seen preseason expectations, let’s analyze how the season actually went.
As you would expect with a lot of experience coming back, all the returners improved. Grant Williams was the highest scoring returner and led the team with 15.6 points. Seven players average over 20 minutes and 5 ppg. All seven have played every game this season. Overcoming injuries is not an issue Rick Barnes had to face. So his players adapted, but what about the newcomers? It’s common sense that coaching is a lot more difficult for new players than guys who have already played under you. James Daniel III, the high scoring graduate transfer, was no Kassius Robertson. In 20.5 minutes per game he’s averaged 5.7 points on 36% shooting. Yikes. And the recruits? The highest scoring recruit averaged 2.8 ppg. Rick Barnes did a good job in improving the team he already had. But he didn’t overcome much adversity. It’s also pretty normal when college basketball players get better over time. I know, crazy concept.
Unlike Rick Barnes, Bruce Pearl had adversity to face this season and probably deserved the award more. Two of the top four scorers they were returning (Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley) have not played this season due to an FBI investigation. Mustapha Heron again led the team with 16.6 ppg. Bryce Brown played an increased role with the team and thrived. He averaged nearly 9 more ppg and improved his shooting percentage from 36% to 41%. While Bruce Pearl certainly faced some adversity, he still had a pretty good team around him.
From a simple standpoint, the expectation was 8th in the SEC and they finished 5th, that’s exceeding expectations. But it’s way more than that. That 8th place prediction didn’t think MPJ’s regular season was going to be two minutes long. That prediction didn’t think CJ Roberts and Blake Harris were going to transfer. That prediction didn’t think the returning point guard in Terrence Phillips was going to be dismissed midseason for a Title IX investigation. Even through all of that, Cuonzo Martin brought an 8-win team to a 20-win team in one season. Imagine what the situation could’ve been without all those losses.
You can make a fine argument to not give Cuonzo Martin SEC Coach of the Year. I would, but I know a five seed in the conference tournament doesn’t look sexy. But you cannot make an argument as to why he only got one vote. This guy has adapted to every single scenario this season. Whether it be injuries, transfers, dismissals, he’s been through it all. Yet Mizzou still finished the regular season with 20 wins. Cuonzo Martin has been disrespected.