SEC Summer Basketball Notebook: Amid Mizzou's hype, Martin preaching basics

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

In case you've been living under a rock for quite a while, here's a newsflash: Missouri's basketball fortunes have changed. A lot.

Just a few months removed from a season in which Missouri won eight games, the Tigers are already media darlings. It's easy to understand why that's the case.

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Michael Porter Jr.

He's the top-ranked player from the Class of 2017. The five-star phenom, who is widely expected to be the top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, will only be in Columbia for one year. But Tiger fans, and Cuonzo Martin himself, have to be hoping that Porter turns out to be the kind of transcendent talent who rises to the occasion and lifts a program from obscurity to prominence in that brief one-and-done whirl.

"Well, it's great for us and great for the program," Martin told reporters on the SEC's summer teleconference when he was asked, to no one's surprise, about the impact of Porter on his basketball program. "Great for the university and the state of Missouri to have a guy of that caliber and magnitude come home to play for Missouri."

This is why Martin was hired away from California. This is why he's paid the big bucks. That's not a knock on his coaching, because nobody would confuse Martin with Johnny Jones. His teams generally improve (it could also be said they generally start slow), which reflects well on him. But Martin's ability to amass talent, which absolutely no one will doubt after his first haul at Mizzou -- truthfully, no one doubted before -- is the main reason he was coveted.

Just what kind of player does Martin believe he's got in Porter?

"Talented, 6'10, long, athletic, makes shots," he said, rattling off the laundry list of scouting buzzwords that have made Porter into a very popular young man with NBA executives and talent evaluators.

As much as anything, Martin is impressed with how Porter looks when "you see him up close," notably, how he competes and how he battles. His competitiveness, Martin told the media, is impressive for such a young player.

But Martin knows Porter's hype alone isn't going to be enough to catapult the Tigers to prominence and SEC or national success. There have been other big-time talents who have fizzled out in college, and others who have seen individual success while their teams are mediocre.

Martin doesn't want that to be the fate of this year's team.

"I think when you put together a team you also want quality student-athletes," Martin said. "Who know what it takes to be a part of a team ... (with a) desire to compete, play hard and be successful in the classroom."

A talented recruiting class he's got, yes, but Martin also inherits some holdovers from the short-lived Kim Anderson experiment, and how they mesh with the new faces will determine a lot about Mizzou's product both on the court and in the locker room.

"The guys who are recruiting (are) battle-tested young men who stayed the course," Martin said. "It says a lot about their character. They stayed at Missouri and wanted to be a part of it."

It would be foolish for Martin to deny the reality of heightened expectations. In fact, there aren't many precedents for his situation. Not many eight-win teams will carry this level of expectations into the following season.

So what's unrealistic? Is Final Four talk outlandish?

Martin's not taking that bait.

"I think, realistically, you're talking about defending, rebounding, play hard, play as a team. Those are the things you can control," he said. "To share the ball on the offensive side of the ball. There are so many unknowns. I'd like to think we had everything figured out at the end of June."

Then, he sounded like John Calipari, trying to strike a more optimistic tone after shrugging off expectations.

"But I like our parts," Martin said. "The desire to be a good team. It's just so hard to say right now. I've never been one consumed with what expectations are. ... My job's to make sure these guys are well-rounded young men."

Missouri had a lot of problems last season. A huge talent influx will solve some of those problems, but other issues -- mainly, defense -- will largely be determined by effort and focus from the offseason through the start of the regular season. Talent will help, but it won't help as much as it will when it comes to scoring the ball.

"I think the biggest key for most young guys nowadays is one-on-one defense," Martin said. "That has a lot to do with the way the game's officiated."

With hand-checking a no-no more than ever, that means moving your feet and playing fundamentally sound on that end has taken on more of a premium. And it's not as easy for younger players.

"We spend a lot of time on one-on-one defense," Martin said. "Help, weakside defense. If we can be good individually, one-on-one, we can be a better defensive team. I think what's taken for granted is the block out. For some strange reason we don't contest shots and then turn around and block out."

In other words, while everyone talking about Missouri is caught up in the hype -- and who can blame them? -- Cuonzo Martin is working on the basics. Because he doesn't want the little things to bury this opportunity.

Speaking of the little things and discipline, Martin had suspended Jeremiah Tilmon for being cited with an alcohol violation. On the SEC teleconference, when Martin was asked whether Tilmon is still suspended, he minced words.

"We have a lot of conversations with our guys," Martin said. "For me, I don't start having conversations when an incident takes place. ... We've had success with young men on and off the court. It's a tough lesson for Jeremiah to learn and we'll continue to push forward and help him grow..."

So is he suspended?

All Martin would say is he's a "part of the team."

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