ST. LOUIS–Multiple outlets, including our news partners at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, report that University of Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin will not return next season.

Martin led the Tigers to a 12-21 record this past season, including Thursday’s loss to LSU in the SEC tournament. His teams went to the NCAA tournament twice, but failed to make it out of the first round.

Missouri Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois made the decision despite a relationship with Martin which goes back to their time at Tennessee, when she was among the group of administrators who brought Martin there from Missouri State in 2011. Reed-Francois’ son had already committed to walking on to the team to play for Martin next season.

A former East St. Louis basketball standout who went on to play in college at Purdue, Martin came to Columbia in 2017 from the University of California. He immediately dialed up expectations when he landed a star-studded recruiting class headlined by one of the nation’s top high school prospects, Michael Porter, Jr., his younger brother Jontay, and Jeremiah Tilmon out of East St. Louis.

But a back injury suffered while playing AAU ball was aggravated in the season opener against Iowa State. Porter Jr. would play just three games in a Mizzou uniform before entering the NBA draft.

Jontay Porter, who reclassified in order to join his brother, starred in his brother’s absence, and was named a co-winner of the SEC’s Sixth Man Award. But Porter was also the victim of injuries, missing the following season to a knee injury, which he re-injured months later while trying to return. Porter would never see the court again for Missouri before declaring for the NBA.

Martin found success attracting transfers early on, first with Canisius shooting guard Kassius Robertson in the 2017, then Illinois guard Mark Smith in 2018. Under existing NCAA rules at the time Evansville guard Dru Smith was forced to sit out 2018-2019 before gaining eligibility.

After two seasons below .500, a veteran team built around the Smiths, Tilmon and guard Xavier Pinson, Belleville East guard Javon Pickett and forward Kobe Brown endured during a pandemic-impacted season, rising to a top 10 ranking. The turnaround led to some in-season speculation that Martin, who is widely respected in the profession for running a clean program, could be in demand as other schools mired in NCAA investigations looked for new leadership. Martin’s club went 8-8 in conference and finished 16-10 befor being eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament, so that speculation dissipated.  

Martin did not publicly lobby for any of last year’s seniors to return to use the extra year of eligibility players were given due to the pandemic. Dru Smith, forward Mitchell Smith and Tilmon left to pursue pro careers. Mark Smith decided to enter the transfer portal and landed at Kansas State. In addition, Pinson, a talented but mercurial guard, left for LSU. Several other players in lesser roles also entered the portal, forcing Martin to remake nearly the entire roster heading into this season.

The reshaped roster included many players with ties to Martin’s roots in the Purdue coaching tree, but with one problem—none of them were pure point guards, an issue that was especially glaring in tight losses.

What happens now?

Martin did sign four-star forward Aiden Shaw out of Blue Valley High School in suburban Kansas City and East St. Louis point guard Christian Jones for next season. The pair could ask out of their letters of intent to pursue other options. Javon Pickett, who emerged offensively as a senior, hasn’t made an official announcement about plans to potentially use his extra COVID year. Under new NCAA rules, players are only allowed one transfer without having to sit out. Short of getting a waiver from the NCAA, there’s every reason to think that most if not all of the players who came into the program for 2021-2022 via the transfer portal will be back next season.

That said, there will always be surprises. Will all four of the freshmen from this year’s class return? Sophomore Kobe Brown, who led the team in scoring, could have decisions to make. Would that impact his brother, freshman guard Kaleb Brown?

Reed-Francois will be tasked with finding a coach who can retool the roster and rebuild enthusiasm with a fanbase which has largely abandoned Mizzou Arena over the past decade, spanning Martin and Kim Anderson’s tenure. For an athletic department struggling to compete financially with juggernaut budgets in the Southeastern Conference, the latter may be just as, if not more important than the former in the near term.