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Press Box: Martin making mark at MU

Press Box: Martin making mark at MU

August 13th, 2017 by Colin O'Brien in Sports

I don't have memories of Missouri athletics' greatest moments pre-Southeastern Conference inclusion.

Colin O'Brien

Colin O'Brien

Part of that is youth, and part of that is living outside of the Big 8/Big 12 geographical footprint, but the Tigers were not often in the national spotlight when I was growing up.

I had no idea about the rivalry with Kansas until it was severed. Those games at Arrowhead, the occasional and delicious defeats of Oklahoma and Nebraska on the football field escaped my young notice. I knew of the flea kicker and fifth-down games not because of Missouri's involvement but because of their ridiculousness. Part of me is now convinced those two plays could only have happened on Faurot Field.

Norm Stewart was not a name I knew, until I saw the big black signature on the court at Mizzou Arena. I had a pair of Antlers on my floor freshman year, and they gave me a crash-course on Tigers legends, but I didn't come to campus with that knowledge. Even the Norfolk State upset the spring before I arrived in Columbia registered with me as an NCAA tournament anomaly, not a soul-crushing upset.

Truthfully, I knew maybe five of the names on the alumni game roster held last month. Sean Weatherspoon and DeMarre Carroll played professionally in Atlanta, and players like Bowers and Ratliffe were tough not to know.

When Missouri moved to the SEC, I had some advantages. My father — a Georgia Tech grad — instilled in me a playful hatred of the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tigers' early success in football meant I got to bring friends home and play host for the SEC championship games.

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My Missouri knowledge before the conference change was scant. But what I do have memories of is Jontay and Michael Porter Jr. playing high school basketball. Athletics recruiting is notoriously fickle. Having seen those two play with my own eyes — watching as much for enjoyment as I was for game coverage — I am all the more impressed with what Cuonzo Martin has been able to do in his first few months on the job.

The image of Porter Jr. decked out in Tolton blue palming the ball from a step inside the free throw line and throwing it down over that poor defender is etched into my brain. The Trailblazers won so many games despite poor shooting performances because those two crashed the boards so well and were putback artists.

Now, add in Jeremiah Tilmon, Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko, and Martin and the Tigers have one of the tallest frontcourts in program history. Missouri should out-rebound opponents, something the team has done during the course of a season just twice in the past 11 seasons, according to, both of which came under Frank Haith.

Martin has yet to coach an NCAA game as a Tiger, but each of his Tennessee and California teams were positive in season rebounding margins. And Tilmon in particular drew compliments from veteran and freshman teammates during the summer session on his tenacity in the paint. Rebounding is one area I see the Tigers making significant steps forward under Martin.

Jontay's reclassification means Missouri has a top-5 recruiting class. This has drawn comparisons to Martin's 2015 class at Cal, which was ranked No. 5 in the nation, and drew two five-star players in Ivan Raab and Jaylen Brown. It led to a 23-11 record, a third-place finish in the Pac-12, but also a first-round playoff loss as a 4-seed to No. 13 Hawaii. And Missouri fans are tired of those, which has caused some to wonder if that's Martin's ceiling: a good recruiter but a poor postseason coach. Cal had two significant injuries, one right before the tournament started, and the 13-over-4 upset really wasn't much of one.

I also think this Missouri class of five true freshmen, including Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts, is better and deeper than Cal's 2015 four-man class, and has a better supporting cast surrounding it.

So maybe — just maybe — it isn't completely out of the question to hope for a post-season run in Martin's first year at the helm.

Just hold off on statue-casting for a little while.