Where Mizzou basketball program stands after another early NCAA Tournament exit

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time, a Missouri men's basketball player has started and ended his collegiate career under Cuonzo Martin.

His name is Jeremiah Tilmon.

The standout center acknowledged in his postgame Zoom conference that Saturday's 72-68 loss to Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament was his finale as a Tiger. 

His exit is part of a mass exodus from the program, closing the first act of the Martin era at Missouri. Five Tiger signees are primed to make their way to Columbia by August, while Class of 2021 peer Sean Durugordon has been enrolled at MU since January. 

In addition to Tilmon, seniors Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Mitchell Smith and Drew Buggs probably played their last game in a Missouri uniform at Lucas Oil Stadium. Junior Xavier Pinson has hinted on social media about declaring for the NBA Draft. He did so last year before returning.

Missouri's Jeremiah Tilmon (23) is consoled by teammate Javon Pickett (4) as they walk off the court after the Tigers lost to Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

So how will these early Martin years be remembered? The 49-year-old has his take. 

"No. 1, they did a great job of getting us back where we need to be as a program. We'll continue to make progress as a program. So they did that, they stayed the course," Martin said. "This year had a lot of things take place in it, on and off the court. And I thought our guys did an admirable job of being professional, taking it as it comes, not complaining, not making excuses. So I'm really proud of those guys. They really matured. A great senior group.

"I think simply said, they were professionals from start to finish."

Martin came to Missouri from Cal in March 2017 and took over a program in a deep rut. The Tigers had gone a combined 27-67 the three previous seasons and won only eight Southeastern Conference games during that span — the exact same number the Tigers won out of 16 league games this season.

Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin reacts during a game against Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 20 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

His four-season tenure in Columbia already represents his longest college head coaching stint, and Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk has indicated a vote of confidence in the East St. Louis native continuing at the helm.

"Cuonzo's done a heck of a job. Yeah, it's that time in the contract where you start to look at it and say, 'OK, Cuonzo, what's important to you? Let's talk.' And he wants to be here," Sterk said on Feb. 25. "He's building a program. He wants to be the last team standing sometime. And I think he has a great opportunity to do that here. And we want him to do that. So we're excited about the future under his leadership."

Missouri ended the 2020-21 season with a record of 16-10 and a winning percentage of .615, the highest since the 2013-14 team finished at .657.

Missouri showed great flashes the past four months, enough to make March Madness, which only 19% of Division I programs do. Around 10% win a game in "The Big Dance," but Missouri's streak of being excluded from that club will reach at least a dozen years. 

Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon (23) and Oklahoma forward Kur Kuath (52) wrestle for control of the ball during the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Is one close loss enough to rethink the overall strategy of the program? No. Had a few more bounces gone Missouri's way, it would be playing No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga on Monday. What's more concerning is how the Tigers spiraled toward the end of the season — losing seven of their last 10 games. 

Even if the NCAA Tournament selection committee under-seeded Missouri as a No. 9, the Tigers did themselves no favors with two losses to Mississippi and a defeat to Georgia while finalizing their postseason resume. 

But it's important to remember the high points of Missouri's season as well. Six teams it beat in the regular season are playing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. 

"I think we accomplished a lot," Tilmon said. "We've always been underdogs. ... We just proved a lot of people wrong that we can play against anybody this year. And like (Martin) said, we turned the program around. We built a culture and kept it going. And hopefully everything continues from here on out."

The Tigers returned 88% of their scoring from last season and 82% of minutes played. Those figures will plummet into next season. The only Tiger guaranteed to be back who started more than two games this season is Kobe Brown.

Oklahoma guard Elijah Harkless (24) looks to shoot while being guarded by Missouri's Mark Smith (13), Dru Smith (12) and Mitchell Smith, back, during the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Brown's younger brother, Kaleb Brown, is officially joining the fold in Columbia next season. Kickapoo teammates Anton Brookshire and Trevon Brazile won a state title Saturday night and are making the drive north to join Missouri, too. Rounding out the 2021 commits is DeSmet center Yaya Keita.

The core of all four Missouri teams so far under Martin might not play another game in Columbia except Kobe Brown and Torrence Watson, who played key minutes as a freshman and sophomore but took a step back this season because of the team's depth.

The second wave of Martin's recruits will be on campus soon to start their path in trying to get the program back to the NCAA Tournament. 

Martin will have several months to digest this season and prepare for the next.  Expectations have risen for the program under his leadership. Now he continues the chase of the Tigers' elusive March success.

"It's a group that fights. They compete, they play hard. They give themselves a chance to win the game," Martin said. "It's basketball. You can't give up. You have to work as hard as you can work until the buzzer sounds."

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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