The Maneater

Coaching tree comrades Matt Painter and Bruce Weber talk Cuonzo Martin’s start at Missouri

Painter and Martin once coached together at Purdue and were teammates there years earlier when Weber was an assistant coach.

Maneater File Photo

With little more than a week left in the regular season, Bruce Weber got a text from an old friend.

“He texts me just, you know, ‘Hey, coach, what are you guys focusing on here down the stretch?’” Weber said, “‘and what are you doing [as a coach]?’”

Cuonzo Martin needed a little advice from a coaching mentor at that point. His Missouri Tigers had lost three straight with March just around the corner, suddenly reintroducing the debate regarding their still tentative NCAA Tournament fate.

Needing to get his team back on track, he turned to Weber, the head coach of tournament-bound Kansas State and an assistant coach from Martin’s playing days.

“We talked about close games and details, and that stuff that really makes a difference, especially getting late in the season,” Weber said. “I just shared some thoughts with him about what we were doing at the time. I talked about the little things and paying attention to detail. You’ve got to keep them focused and paying attention to those details, concentrating on them, getting your guys to believe in them, just because there’s such a fine line.”

Missouri proceeded to string together two straight victories and cement the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in five years, all one season after the Tigers finished 8-24. Ridden with injuries, suspensions and transfer losses, to do so was a feat of leadership that caught the attention of college basketball coaches around the country — especially a couple of those whose connections with Martin span 25 years back.

Weber and Purdue head coach Matt Painter hail from the same coaching tree as Martin. They weren’t surprised by what he did this year.

“Things change in time — you grow older, you grow wiser, you learn from your experience — but he’s always been a very determined, very disciplined, competitive guy,” Painter said. “What he did at Missouri in his first year is something he’s done before.”

Painter would know. While assembling a staff after he took over the head coaching job at Purdue in 2005, he kept Martin on as an assistant coach. Both had been on Gene Keady’s staff the season prior. More than a decade earlier, the two were teammates at Purdue under Keady in the 1990s. Weber was an assistant coach on those teams.

“When Cuonzo arrived at Purdue, the nurse told us he would never play more than 20 minutes a game because of his knee,” Weber said, referring to complications with an ACL surgery Martin had coming out of high school. “Sometimes when people tell him it can't be done, that's when he goes into high gear to prove people.”

Martin played 30 minutes or more per game in each of his last three college seasons.

“He rarely came out [of games]; he’d get mad at us,” Weber said with a laugh.

Dealing with adverse situations is what he and Painter pride Martin on most. The Purdue and Kansas State skippers, who together also coached Southern Illinois to success in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, both stress that Martin is one of college basketball’s greatest conquerors of hardship.

He showed it on the basketball court at Purdue after he went 0 for 7 on 3-point attempts across his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“Coach Keady said never shoot an expletive, buncha-word 3-pointer again,” Weber said. “He got in that gym, Mackey Arena, no air conditioning, shot the 3 ball, and after not making any his first two years, in two years he became, at that time, the all-time leading 3-point shooter in Purdue history.”

He showed it off the court after his college days were over, when cancer became his opponent.

“He’s playing overseas, has the cancer come up, and I still remember getting the call from him around Christmas time,” Weber said. “I was like ‘Hey; it’s great you got home for Christmas,’ and he said, ‘No Coach, not home for Christmas.’

“It was devastating to see that but just kind of typical of him. He overcomes things.”

And he showed it throughout his debut season at Missouri when the Tigers lost the No. 1 recruit in the country for three-plus months among a series of other backcourt-depleting losses.

“I think for a young coach, he’s dealt with so much adversity in his life, so when you look at the adverse situations he has had from a basketball standpoint, I don't think he looks at it like it’s that big of a deal,” Painter said. “You lose a couple guys in your backcourt, you beat cancer — they really don’t compare.”

So when his remaining players had to find a way around all their lost teammates, all their demoralizing last-second losses, Martin was the perfect guy to guide them, Painter said.

“His mindset is great for things like that,” Painter said. “He just looks at it like, ‘Hey; knuckle up and do what you're supposed to do and don't feel sorry for yourself. Somebody else out there has it worse than you.’ I think that's a great approach. You can still get the job done. I think that's what he did this year even though he had one of the best players in the country who only played a couple games for him.”

Martin getting his team to the NCAA Tournament was something Weber fully expected when he looked at Missouri’s assets at the start of the season in November; by March, it was an accomplishment he was beyond impressed by.

Missouri’s run came to a halt in the first round at the hands of Florida State, but even in the midst of any shortcomings that contributed to their final downfall, Painter thought it was the resilience of the Tigers with so few players that stood out. Missouri sliced a 22-point deficit to 6 at one point in the loss.

“People sometimes forget there's another team out there,” Painter said. “Did they have their best player [healthy]? Did they lose their second-leading scorer to a suspension and he couldn't play in a game in the NCAA Tournament? What if they had to do those same things, and now you put them on an even playing field; how would that game end up?

“I've coached 14 years,” he continued, “and I’ve never dealt with what he had to deal with right there.”

Nor has he had to deal with the unique situation Martin is faced with this offseason. After reviving Missouri basketball in 2017-18 behind a recruiting gem, he’ll have to maintain and build on what he started with a primarily clean plate — no Michael Porter Jr., no Kassius Robertson, no Jordan Barnett, maybe no Jontay Porter. How will he do it?

“Obviously, recruiting becomes a major factor,” Weber said. “Cuonzo has the respect of coaches, and then when parents get to know him and see what he's about as a person, I know that's able to help him with the recruiting process. He’s been able to find some guys, get some guys where no one else thought he could, and I'm sure that will continue as he moves forward at Missouri.”

But while Martin has made big strides in local St. Louis-area recruiting already, he won’t have a No. 1 overall prospect in an assistant coach’s backyard every year.

“I know from my experiences and even our team last year, getting little tastes of winning and getting in the tournament can be a really driving force, a motivational force,” Weber said.

Kansas State narrowly made the 2017 NCAA Tournament, winning a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio, before being eliminated. Last month, Weber’s Wildcats were back as a No. 9 seed. This time, they crashed the 2018 Dance with three wins that had them playing as one of the final eight teams in the country.

Painter had his fair share of success, too, frequenting the AP top five during the 2017-18 season and ultimately bringing Purdue to the Sweet 16 for a second straight season.

“You’ve got to go out there and mold a team together, piece a team together, go out there and fight; there’s no magic answer, and Cuonzo has always known that,” Painter said. “He’s been able to do it a couple different ways. He's been able to develop guys; he's been able to recruit high-level guys. That's kind of the secret to success: There is no secret.”

As for Martin’s future teams, Painter and Weber have different opinions about wanting to face them. Painter prefers not to schedule his friends in coaching if he can avoid it.

“They’re your friend; you don't want them to lose anything,” he said. “I have no problem with playing Missouri. I just don't want to play Missouri if they’re coached by Cuonzo Martin.”

But Weber says he’s talked to Martin about the two scheduling each other, and still hopes to make it happen in the near future.

“We were really looking at next year, but they’re in the same tournament as us, the Virgin Island tournament,” he said. “Because of that tournament we kind of put it off, but we definitely would like to do it. When that hurricane relief popped up, I called him right away, but he had already got it set with Kansas.”

Weber even brought up an old conference controversy regarding scheduling with the Tigers.

“To be honest, for me, it’s sad that Missouri is not in the Big 12 — it makes more sense to me,” he said, citing the "natural rivalries" based on geography and referring back to his days at Illinois when he played Missouri every year in the Braggin’ Rights game. “I know there were hard feelings when they left the league or whatever, but hopefully those are things where we can start over playing some of those games. I think it's great for the fans.”

Whether or not any of those matchups play out, Weber and Painter said they were both proud to see Martin get Missouri basketball back on the map in his first year.

“To be able to land a coach like Cuonzo Martin at Missouri, they should be really appreciative of what they have and be thankful for what they have,” Painter said. “The past is the best predictor of the future. I think he's gonna be very successful at Missouri in the coming years.”

He and Weber both hope to see that success pan out, and Weber is always welcoming to a text for advice.

“That was my whole focus when I texted him,” Weber said. “You build your foundation of your team. Now they’ve got to stay determined, got to stay very focused. And all those little things make a big difference.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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