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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Vashon's Cam'Ron Fletcher

Vashon's Cam'Ron Fletcher pushes the ball up the floor during a Class 3 boys championship basketball game against Springfield Catholic on Friday, March 8, 2019, at JQH Arena in Springfield , Mo. Randy Kemp | Special to STLhighschoolsports.com

Let’s face it, Mizzou basketball coach Cuonzo Martin is never going to lock down the greater St. Louis recruiting scene.

He commands respect in his home market. He is getting his share of local stars. He is moving the Missouri program forward from Kim Anderson’s unfortunate reign of error.

He led the Tigers to one NCAA Tournament and he will bring them back for more.

But Martin can’t possibly seal off the metropolitan borders from his rivals, as some unrealistic fans hoped when he came back to the Midwest from California and took the job.

Aggressive Illinois coach Brad Underwood will continue working the territory hard. So will SLU as long as ever-ambitious Travis Ford is coaching there. And some kids don’t want to stay home.

When the blue-blood programs come calling for the elite local prospects, how are they supposed to say no?

The latest example was Vashon wing player Cam’Ron Fletcher jumping at Kentucky’s offer during his trip to Lexington. He committed to the Wildcats before taking official visits to other schools.

Martin and his staff worked Fletcher as hard as they could. They believed they had a real shot at him. They made a strong impression.

So did Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and the Spartans staff. But Kentucky is Kentucky and when coach John Calipari offers, a young man has to listen.

So Martin and Co. keep grinding away. CBC guard Caleb Love put Missouri in his final six choices, but he also listed North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, Louisville and Arizona among his favorites. Uh, oh!

Most experts peg Missouri’s chances somewhere between slim and nil, given that competition. But Martin must stay after him to remind folks that this is still his backyard.

The Tigers are also targeting Trinity Catholic center Ryan Kalkbrenner, who would fill a more immediate need for 2020 with center Jeremiah Tilmon likely to turn pro.

“Coach Cuonzo, I really like him,” Kalkbrenner told Rivals.com. “He obviously has a track record that shows he knows that he’s doing so he has to be a good coach. That’s something to look at.”

But Illinois, Ohio State and Purdue are among the teams pushing hard for him. Ohio State landed Belleville West star E.J. Liddell despite Martin’s relentless effort and that has Kalkbrenner’s attention.

“With E.J. Lidell going there, there’s something he must have liked if he committed there,” he said. “So I’m going to go and see if I see the same thing.”

Martin must play the long game in a business that has become increasingly frenetic with one-and-done recruits and wholesale transferring. The Porter Family Package gave him a bit of a head start, but now the heavy lifting is underway.

He kept the Tigers together after a challenging 15-17 campaign featuring the season-long loss of star center Jontay Porter to a knee injury and the late-season foot injury to guard Mark Smith, his next best player.

Martin made the most of a bad situation, giving more late-season minutes to freshman guards Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson. He maintained buy-in from his key underclassmen and kept them in the fold for the coming season, creating critical continuity.

The late addition of forward Kobe Brown gave the Tigers a solid 2019 recruiting class. Brown, who previously signed with Texas A&M, joined forward Tray Jackson and Vashon guard Mario McKinney as incoming freshmen who could improve the future.

Much is expected from redshirt junior Dru Smith, a former Evansville standout. Expectations are more tempered for redshirt freshman Parker Braun and JUCO oddity Axel Okongo.

Missouri must win to rekindle fan support, create a more exciting atmosphere at cavernous Mizzou Arena and gain some recruiting leverage.

That won’t be easy this season — given that daunting non-conference schedule — but the Tigers could surprise the SEC if they can avoid catastrophic injury for a change.

Such progress would get the attention of recruits. So would more individual success stories like Edwardsville’s Smith, who blossomed into an impact player after an unhappy stint at Illinois.

Former Belleville East star Javon Pickett could become a similar story. He is a worker, like Smith, and he made great strides during his first season in the program.

So did Watson, the former Whitfield standout who gained the full attention of SEC coaches by the end of his freshman campaign.

Then there is Tilmon, the pivotal talent from East St. Louis. The young man possesses a world of potential. He progressed as a sophomore, between fouls, and wisely returned for a third season.

If Tilmon can finally break out and earn the attention of pro scouts, that would give Martin still another selling point for the region.

He is trying to build a program and establish a culture. He wants to develop players, keeping them in the extended family and encouraging them to spread the word.

Tilmon, Smith, Pickett, Watson and McKinney add up to an excellent STL talent haul during a few short years. Expect Martin to keep them coming, but don’t expect him to get them all.


Quick Hits from Mizzou beat writer Dave Matter

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