Martin’s impact on Tigers already noticeable at Tigers media day

Ahead of his first season as the head coach of Missouri basketball, the difference Cuonzo Martin has brought to the Tigers was on full display Friday.

In his first press conference of the season, ahead of his team’s first practice, first-year head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was short, sweet and direct in his opening statement.

“I’m ready to roll. That’s my opening statement,” Martin said.

This was not news. Martin has been ready to roll ever since he took over Missouri’s men’s basketball program in March and proved it with the moves he’s made.

In his first five months on the job, Martin signed four four-star or higher recruits, most notably signing the nation’s No. 1 player, Michael Porter Jr. The other three signings ― point guard Blake Harris and big men Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter, Porter Jr.’s younger brother – helped put Missouri over the top as Martin transformed a Tigers squad that went 8-24 last season into a team with a top-25 caliber roster.

At this point, the additions to the team have been discussed ad nauseam, but no amount of discussion can underplay their significance. Martin has overhauled the program in a short amount of time, and things are different from the way they have been over the past few years.

On Friday, as fall camp officially began, that difference was on display almost immediately as players spoke to the media.

Porter Jr., unsurprisingly, attracted the most attention. He controlled the room with his presence from the moment he stepped into the gym. His brother Jontay commanded a fairly sizable following as well. Both spoke about how talented and special this group of players was and the impact that coach Martin has made in the early going.

But it was the way Tigers veterans spoke, the players that have experienced all of the losses and disappointment of the past several seasons, that provided the most insight on the change within the program since Martin’s arrival.

Junior point guard Terrence Phillips, who will serve as a veteran presence on Martin’s youthful team, said the Tigers’ approach is the biggest change from last year.

“The set of standards we’re set to [is different],” Phillips said. “The way we approach things is at a higher standard. The energy level is higher, the way we walk around campus is higher, everything we do is at another notch right now.”

Another component a number of Tigers pointed to was the intensity that Martin brings to the court, which had been lacking in the past. The in-practice battles are new for junior power forward Kevin Puryear, who has primarily guarded Porter Jr. in the preseason. Puryear said he had never experienced such high-intensity practices before Martin arrived.

“It has raised the competition,” Puryear, a Blue Springs native, said. “It’s gotten pretty serious. We’re all competitors that want to win, and we all want to be on the floor. And at the end of the day, we’re all going to scratch and claw to do that.”

Jontay Porter was not around to experience the past few seasons but has gotten the sense from the older players that this fall camp has been a different one.

“Their demeanor [is different],” Porter said. “The older dudes are just hungry for winning, and I think that’s one of the driving forces behind our team.”

Part of that new demeanor also comes from Martin. Phillips touched on how different the attitude was this year, saying that the new approach that this Tigers team has comes from the top.

“It really starts with the head coach,” Phillips said. “You’ll hear commentators all the time say that players take their demeanor from their head coach, and that’s how we are as a group right now. He’s going to come in and be all about business.”

It is evident that Martin’s presence has brought a different energy and attitude to Missouri basketball. His intensity has delivered a much-needed shift in direction for a team that was in need of a leader, and its dividends are already clear.

Most importantly, Martin appears to have inspired a hunger for winning, one that is most present in the veterans.

The 18 combined wins of the past two seasons have taken a toll, and the prospect of becoming a winning team under Martin is one that brings instant excitement to the faces of the older players.

Asked whether winning would mean more to the guys who have been on the team for the past few seasons, Phillips’ eyes lit up.

“100 percent,” Phillips said laughing.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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