TAMPA, Fla. — Cuonzo Martin stomped. He shouted. He paced. He put his Nikes and jaws to work. If this indeed proved to be his final game on the Mizzou sideline, Martin seemed intent to burn every last calorie in his 50-year-old body to will the Tigers to one more victory.
Once again, it was not enough.
A blowout-in-the-making turned far more competitive in the second half Thursday at Amalie Arena, but Louisiana State’s 76-68 victory in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament ended Mizzou’s season and officially put athletics director Desiree Reed-Francois and MU’s administration on the clock: Will Martin be back for another season?
He has two years left on his original seven-year contract and a $6 million buyout should Mizzou choose to launch a fifth head-coaching search in 16 years. There are influential boosters who support Martin’s return, sources close to the program have told the Post-Dispatch. There are also influential boosters who wanted a new coach weeks before the Tigers arrived in Florida with a chance to delay that decision. Longtime donor Bill Laurie, whose family most famously donated $25 million to build Mizzou Arena, left his front-row seat Thursday with 40 seconds left in the game, turning his back on the floor as the final possessions played out.
“Cuonzo and I will talk in the next couple of days,” Reed-Francois told the Post-Dispatch after she greeted each Mizzou player and staffer as they walked off the court for the last time this season.
Minutes later, asked if Thursday’s game might have been his last coaching Mizzou, Martin said, “I’m good to go. I’m at peace with whatever. I don’t get consumed with that. I don’t worry about that. If that’s the best thing for both parties then that’s the best thing for both parties. But I won’t waste any time with that. Whatever happens happens. And again, like I say with life, you know people (ask), ‘Is he gone?’ Well, if that’s the best thing than that’s the best thing. As long as you don’t take the main things from my life, I don’t worry about that. I don’t.
“Because if it is (my last game) then the plan worked. Because when I was put here, it worked. I was here to make it work. I say that with all humility. Then you let the chips fall where they way. But I’ve got a tremendous peace of mind. I’m going back to the hotel to relax with family and then go from there.”
MU’s staff strongly believes the returning core of this year’s team — Kobe Brown, Trevon Brazile and Ronnie DeGray III — has the makings of an NCAA Tournament team next year if they add some much-needed backcourt help via the transfer portal. Whether or not Martin’s staff gets that chance remains to be seen. The Tigers have two high school recruits signed to join the team next fall — four-star forward Aidan Shaw and three-star East St. Louis guard Christian Jones — with room for at least one more addition if senior guard Javon Pickett doesn’t return for his extra year of eligibility.
As for this year’s team, Martin didn’t end the season with any formal farewells.
“These are relationships,” he said. “For us it’s not just about coaching a basketball team. We have life relationships. There’s a love and a passion to see these young men be successful … I don’t need to put together three keywords after a game. I’ll talk to them until they put me in a casket, so it’s not, let’s hurry up and say something real quick. I don’t need to do that.”
Twelve days after a 20-point loss at LSU, Mizzou (12-21) buckled early against the Tigers’ relentless defensive pressure. From the opening tip, LSU (22-10) appeared to have six defenders on the floor against MU’s hapless five and feasted on 15 first-half Mizzou turnovers. By the final buzzer, Martin’s Tigers had turned the ball over a season-high 24 times.
The giveaways came in all shapes and sizes. In the first half, MU had three shot clock violations, two backcourt violations, four turnovers on bad passes and three on offensive fouls.
On the floor’s other end, former Mizzou guard Xavier Pinson kicked off the early onslaught with a kiss. He drained a 3-pointer from the wing, then blew a kiss to the Mizzou band along the baseline. Pinson’s 11 first-half points helped stake LSU to a 25-point lead, though he went scoreless in the second half.
“X spent three years at Mizzou, so I think it does mean a little bit more to him,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “But I thought he played well today. I thought the first time we played them he pressed a little bit early in the game, and I thought today he let it come to him a little bit more.”
In the second half, much like Wednesday’s victory over Mississippi, Mizzou threw the first punches early, getting the deficit down to 10.
“I wasn’t really consumed with how many we were down,” Martin said. “It’s basketball. You can come back and win a game if you focus on the task at hand, and we did that and just came up short.”
LSU countered with a 12-0 run to regain control, but in the closing seconds Mizzou scored the game’s final nine points to get back within eight, close enough for Martin to call one last timeout in the final seconds. MU nearly made it a two-possession game but missed a couple layups in the last few seconds.
“I was happy to see the way that we kept fighting,” Pickett said. “Guys were continuing to battle throughout the whole game. The second half, towards the end you could just see the growth. A lot of guys were competing. That just made me proud.”
DaJuan Gordon led Mizzou with a career-high 19 points. Brazile, the most important building block for whoever coaches the Tigers next year, scored a career-high 15 points. In what’s likely his final college game, Pickett finished with 14 points.
From here, LSU advanced to Friday’s quarterfinals to play Arkansas. Missouri advanced to an unknown future with far more questions than answers.
PICKETT GRITS IT OUT
Pickett appeared to injure his right wrist at the end of the second half of Wednesday’s game against Ole Miss, an injury that Martin said should have sidelined his senior guard against LSU.
“But because of his grit and toughness, he laced them up and went to battle,” Martin said.
Pickett scored in double figures in 16 of the final 18 games he played and for the season averaged a career-best 11.1 points per game. After the game the Belleville native said he hadn’t decided if he’ll return for another year of eligibility.
BRAZILE SHINES AGAIN
Brazile continued his late-season surge with 15 points, eight boards, two blocks and two steals. He finished the season averaging 1.9 blocks per game, tied for the third best single-season mark in program history. For the second straight night, Martin raved about the freshman from Springfield.
“I’m not sure in the college landscape around the country, but you find me nine better next fall, barring any major injury,” he said. “The way he jumps at the rim, if you study the game and if you are a student of it, his growth from day one — and he missed 12 games — so his growth from the time he got into SEC play to down the stretch, you give me 10 (better) guys in the league, period, the last 10 games down the stretch.”
MU’s season-long issues at the point guard position were on full display against LSU’s pressing defense. Boogie Coleman, the team’s starting point guard by default, struggled with the pressure early then spent most of the second half on the bench. Freshman Kaleb Brown opened the second half at the point and played 16 second-half minutes to Coleman’s three. … MU outrebounded LSU 32-24, marking just the third time Mizzou has lost a game this season when it won the battle on the boards. … Wade declined to comment when asked several times about LSU’s Notice of Allegations from the NCAA regarding alleged recruiting violations. “When stuff is swirling around, you have to narrow your focus, and so you can’t worry about everything that’s going on around you,” Wade said. “You have to narrow your focus. We’re here to play basketball. Whatever is going on doesn’t affect anybody on our team. Not one of our players was here hardly.”
Dave Matter brings you the latest updates from the Mizzou sports scene.