COLUMBIA, Mo. — He’s plowing through books. He’s letting his beard grow. He’s rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder.
The offseason came sooner than Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin expected, but he’s finding ways to make it through a world that suddenly froze with the spread of coronavirus.
“This profession has been great to me,” Martin said in a phone interview from his home on the south side of Columbia, “but the one thing it’s never presented is down time.”
Now he’s got more time than ever. The Southeastern Conference has suspended all team activities through April 15 and will likely extend that suspension through the end of May, Mizzou athletics director Jim Sterk said Thursday.
For Martin and his program, the shutdown comes at a crucial time when college basketball rosters take shape through attrition and recruiting. He’s already lost one player to the NCAA transfer portal, freshman forward Tray Jackson. Three more players announced this week they’ll test the NBA draft waters.
Meanwhile, Martin has at least two scholarships available for next season. His staff is aggressively shopping the graduate transfer market for immediate help on the perimeter. Justin Turner (Bowling Green) and Jalen Harris (Arkansas) both had Mizzou among their final selections, although Harris said late Thursday he was choosing Georgetown.
“I’ve always enjoyed grad transfers because it’s their last stop,” said Martin, who’s prohibited from discussing unsigned recruits. “Grad transfers and junior college guys, those guys can help in areas with their experience. They understand, they’ve been through things. If it’s your final stop you put all your eggs in one basket.”
Teams can’t have any in-person contact with recruits during the NCAA’s current dead period, which has been pushed back through May 31. That’s OK with Martin.
“I think it’s great because you have a chance to outwork the competition,” he said. “July recruiting, everyone does that. April recruiting, everyone does that. Now you become creative. You FaceTime. You email guys. You’re finding all different avenues. You send film of your team. You’re really working the families. That’s the way it used to be. It gives you a chance to get a leg up on the competition if you’re doing what you’re supposed to and you’re consistent.”
For now, Martin isn’t sweating his roster’s uncertainty. Teams can carry a maximum of 13 scholarship players. That doesn’t mean he’ll head into his fourth season expecting to play 13 players in his rotation.
“At the end of the day, what you continue to learn now more than ever is it’s hard to make 13 guys happy,” he said. “With the transfer portal, you have these situations where guys transfer and I don’t know if it’s always a bad thing. If I were a young guy I’d want to play, and if I’m not playing, no hard feelings, but I want to go somewhere I can play.”
“You’ve got 13 scholarships but nobody plays 13 guys,” he added. “Back when I played (at Purdue in the 1990s), two or three guys would redshirt. Nowadays that’s not the world any more. To make 13 guys happy is not an easy thing.”
That said, Martin was surprised Jackson chose to leave the program, even though his playing time was minimal most of the season.
“I didn’t expect that,” Martin said. “We didn’t want Tray to go. Tray did what’s best for him. I have no problem with Tray’s decision. Tray is mature and he’ll sit down and think through things. He’s not a guy who makes a decision because someone tells him what to think.”
As for the three players testing the NBA draft — sophomore guard Xavier Pinson and junior forwards Mitchell Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon — Martin believes they can all benefit from the process, whether or not they stay in this summer’s draft. All three will leave open the option of returning to Mizzou.
“I’m excited,” Martin said. “I felt like X and Jeremiah wanted to experience that. It was me more pushing Mitch to go do this, but I didn’t really have to push because he was excited.
“I really feel like when it’s all said and done as Mitch continues to improve his strength and his confidence operating around the rim, I would think he’ll have a shot (at the NBA). Now I don’t know that he’ll get drafted. Getting drafted is a great thing, but at the end of the day it’s a matter of making a team.”
“I think if Mitch continues to progress the way he’s progressing he can be part of the NBA in some capacity at some point because he’s made so many strides,” he added. “He always had a great desire to defend, but at the end of the year he embraced his responsibilities to be an elite rebounder.”
On Tilmon, Martin said, “Jeremiah has all the parts. Now it’s a matter of getting the workouts against other big guys so he can see it, feel it and be around other NBA guys. Sometimes you can get two or three tidbits that take you to a whole other level. That part is great for him.”
On Pinson, he said, “For X, the way he played down the stretch and his production and his speed, all those things will really help him.”
With classes shifted online, most of Martin’s players have returned to their hometowns. Smith, Tilmon, center Axel Okongo and guard Torrence Watson have stayed in Columbia. Strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher sends the players individual workouts to follow on their own.
“All they can truly do is some outside conditioning and maybe push-ups and sit-ups,” Martin said. “They don’t have access to any gyms and I don’t really recommend our guys play outside on concrete. For four or five of our guys I think rest is the best medicine.”
Martin was scheduled to have shoulder surgery in May, but once the Tigers’ season was cut short at the SEC tournament three weeks ago, he opted to have the procedure the following week. He goes through rehab every morning, then walks three to five miles while talking to his players on FaceTime or listening to his stash of audiobooks. Since the end of the season he’s gone through former NBA player Vin Baker’s biography and T.D. Jakes’ book “Soar: Build Your Vision from the Ground Up.”
With the luxury of unprecedented downtime, Martin can work on that vision from the comforts of home with his wife and kids.
“You’re going so fast in our profession, even when you’re home you’d like to think you’re present,” he said. “But now you’re seeing your kids, there’s a relationship. Outside of the hysteria and the death, all the things the coronavirus has caused, the panic, it’s been good to spend time with family.”
Dave Matter brings you the latest updates from the Mizzou sports scene.