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
9 OR MORE WINS: HYPE OR POSSIBILITY?
QUESTION: There's a lot of hype from media personalities and fans of this being a 9-3 or 10-2 football season. What's your impression from the coaches and players compared to years past? Do they seem more confident this year?
MATTER: Missouri finished with eight wins last year against a more difficult conference schedule, so I wouldn't call a 9-3 prediction hype. I think it's grounded in logic with maybe a touch of optimism.
Here's a news bulletin: Players are confident every year. They expect to win every game. At this point in the calendar, they don't know much about Kentucky or Georgia or Tennessee. In the spring, the team leaders talked about going 12-0. And it's not all that different from what we hear from players before every season. So, I never read too much into the preseason bravado.
Coaches, on the other hand, can be the ultimate fatalists. They might have a sneaking suspicion this team is better than other teams ... but most of them are convinced one bad practice or one bad drill will lead to 0-12. And for the most part, coaches see only with tunnel vision. They're consumed with today's meetings and tomorrow's practice.
Do I get the sense they like this year's team? Of course, especially with how the team handled the sanctions news in January. But in the same breath that they express any hope they've got a million things to worry about, a million things that could go wrong.
IDEAL SCHEDULE FOR TIGERS?
QUESTION: Does Mizzou have the easiest schedule this year in SEC football? Last year was probably one of the toughest schedules we've ever had to play.
MATTER: Yes. When your two SEC West opponents are Arkansas and Ole Miss, that's the easiest possible combination you can have — at least on paper. Now, maybe Ole Miss' two coordinator hires and new quarterback turn the Rebels into a national juggernaut immediately. Then we can re-evaluate the strength of schedule.
But as far as the schedules stand right now based on what we know about the 14 teams, you can't get a more ideal schedule than Mizzou. Yes, they have to play at Georgia, but Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee, widely considered the next-best teams in the East, all visit Columbia.
I've always said that MU should capitalize on the odd-numbered years because it means three of your four SEC road games are at Kentucky, Vandy and Arkansas. And if you're going to join the SEC, your aspirations should always be that your program is better than those three programs.
WHO'S EXPECTED TO BEAT MIZZOU?
QUESTION: If Bryant fits in at QB and the team is scoring a lot, I see Georgia as the toughest opponent. South Carolina and Kentucky are pests that have given Mizzou problems, but even Georgia was beatable last year. Who do you see beating MU, assuming they aren't decimated by injuries and subpar performances?
MATTER: Last year’s Georgia game was probably the worst Georgia played in any of its 11 wins — and they still won by two TDs. MU's 29 points was the most UGA allowed in a win. And only Alabama and LSU scored more on the Bulldogs. But, again, there wasn't a point after midway through the third quarter that I thought Missouri had a chance to win that game.
When you look at the two teams this year, Georgia has much more in terms of established talent at most positions other than receiver and tight end. If you lined up the starters at every position between the two teams, how many Mizzou starters would you take over his Georgia counterpart? Okwuegbunam for sure. Maybe Rountree over Swift, but not many people will make that pick. UGA doesn't have much experience at receiver but still has young talent there. Their O-line and secondary is stacked. Fromm might be the third-best QB in the country. So, being objective here, and with the game being in Athens, I can't really make a valid argument for how Missouri wins that game. Unless, of course, like in any game, the Tigers play their best, Georgia plays much less than its best and some breaks fall Mizzou's way.
As for other teams that could/should beat Mizzou ... don't assume the Tigers will handle Florida just because the Tigers won that game the last two years. UF returns a lot of talent from a 10-win team and didn't lose much to the draft. I picked MU second in the East but wouldn't be surprised to see UF push Georgia all year long and make a playoff surge. South Carolina won't be an easy game. They match up well against Odom's teams, for whatever reason, and have a veteran QB who's been in plenty of big games on the road. K
Kentucky also has MU's number, but I'm not convinced they're built for the long haul. They lost two special players.
WHEN WILL THE NCAA MAKE UP ITS MIND?
QUESTION: When will the kangaroo court make its decision on the NCAA appeals case? It’s totally ridiculous that these penalties were handed down in the first place.
MATTER: Let me direct you back to what I wrote in Sunday's Post-Dispatch. I wrote it about as clearly as we can at this point: "When can Mizzou expect a final ruling on the appeal? The NCAA benchmark is six to eight weeks after the final hearing, which took place July 18. On average, an NCAA appeals case takes eight months from the time of the appeal to the final ruling. MU filed its appeal on March 25. In other words, the ruling could come any time from August to November."
Follow-up: (ESPN Insider) Phil Steele says he expects the bowl ban sanctions against Mizzou to be overturned. I hope he's right.
MATTER: Nobody knows. From Jim Sterk to Alex Cartwright to Barry Odom. The appeals committee can deliberate for months before making its decision. So, as much as Phil knows about every team's depth chart from Akron to Youngstown State, he doesn't know if the ban will be overturned.
CAN CUONZO KEEP EVERYONE HAPPY?
QUESTION: There's a lot of potential with the Mizzou basketball team, especially this set of guards. Can Coach Martin keep them all happy?
MATTER: Keeping everyone happy is a challenge and goal of every coach. I'd say that's something to monitor with this team — not because Cuonzo has a group of me-first players who won't buy into the team concept, but there's just a lot of guards/ball-handlers/shooters who can be impact players for this team but not necessarily every night. Martin addressed that challenge this week.
"I think our strength will be our numbers as far as nine, 10 guys, sharing the basketball and playing well as a team. But the other part is ... the sacrifice of if 'I don't play as much tonight I have to understand the big picture,' what it means to be a team because oftentimes when you huddle up as a team you say you want to be family ... you say all these things. What does that really mean? Family means sacrifice. ... I think it will be good in a lot of areas. But I think the most important thing, we have to be good as a whole."
This team doesn't have individual superstars. At least not yet as the way it's constructed now. That's why they have to buy into what Martin is preaching to have a cohesive, balanced, deep team.
LEADERS IN FOOTBALL AND BASKETBALL
QUESTION: Who stands out as the best leaders on both the football and basketball rosters? What can you say about them that demonstrates those capabilities?
MATTER: On the football team, Cale Garrett, Kelly Bryant, Larry Rountree, DeMarkus Acy, Johnathon Johnson.
Granted, I'm not in the locker room or around the team in their most intimate settings, but these are all guys who carry themselves with the right blend of confidence but also an approachability. They're the kind of players you want to be around and have with you when things are good and bad on the field and away from the field. Bryant won over his new teammates when he pledged to stay at Mizzou in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. Rountree just carries himself like a pro, appears to be a model teammate and plays as hard as anyone. Garrett says and does all the right things and leads by example. Acy seems to be finding his voice and holds himself to a really high standard. Same for Johnson.
As for hoops, the players have raved about Dru Smith. Cuonzo has, too. Yesterday he compared him to Kassius Robertson. That's incredibly high praise. “He’ll say what needs to be said but very similar to Kassius in a way, he’ll just go about his business, say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done and let (his) work speak for itself," Martin said.
TOUGHEST FOOTBALL COACHING JOB?
QUESTION: Who has the toughest football coaching job in the SEC?
MATTER: I would say Vanderbilt ... but the expectations there are so much lower than any other school that I don't think the coaches there are under the same kind of scrutiny or pressure to win at the national level. Yes, they’ll fire a coach if he loses year after year, but the leash is longer because the resources and standards aren’t nearly as high as they are everywhere else.
On that note, I think you can make a case that Mississippi State is the more difficult job, mostly because of its location in Starkville and the fact that its resources are less than that of the other public universities in the league. But MSU still has a rabid fan base that expects results even though, historically, they’ve never been a great program.
I also think Missouri is a difficult job because of the limited local recruiting pool, the incredibly small donor base, the attendance challenge and the lack of established tradition and history compared to some SEC peers.
UPDATE ON ALCOHOL SALES AT MIZZOU EVENTS?
QUESTION: Any update on selling beer/wine to the general public in Missouri athletic venues at athletic events? I thought July 31 was somewhat of a deadline for a decision.
MATTER: At last check, AD Jim Sterk is still working through the process of making this happen this year. I would expect some kind of announcement soon. Missouri wants to make it happen, but the athletics department needs everyone in alignment, from police to campus leadership to their food and beverage distributor.
Follow-up: Do fans really want to overpay for cheap booze at Faurot? Why is it so hard to enjoy football without alcohol? What's wrong with getting sloshed in the parking lot beforehand?
MATTER: This doesn't concern me, and I can't speak for the fans. But when I attend a sporting event that I'm not covering, I like to enjoy an adult beverage or two. Not everyone drinks to get annihilated and black out. I'm sure a lot of fans would like the opportunity to have a beer without having to binge drink in the parking lot before the game or sneak in their favorite spirit in their cargo shorts.
EARLIER STORY: Mizzou hopes to follow West Virginia's lead on alcohol sales
WHO STEPS UP IN THE BACKUP QB ROLE?
QUESTION: As preseason camp starts, how do you rank the backup quarterbacks?
MATTER: Taylor Powell opens camp as No. 2. He won the backup job in camp last year. Lindsey Scott Jr. is still in the mix. Freshman Connor Bazelak has joined the team this summer, though I doubt we see him this fall unless they want to get him on the field under the new redshirt rule (four games or fewer).
The wild card is TCU transfer Shawn Robinson. He has a waiver request pending. The team won't want to use up his year of eligibility unless Kelly Bryant gets hurt for a lengthy stretch, but if the NCAA grants the waiver, MU might want to get Robinson some playing time to prepare for 2020.