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Column | Realistic expectations for the Missouri Tigers

BROOKLYN, NY - APRIL 14: East Team forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) on the bench during the first half of the 2017 Jordan Brand Classic National Boys Game between the West Team and the East Team on April 14, 2017 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

The Missouri Tigers will enter the 2017-18 season with as much hype as any team in the nation. Thanks to a change in head coach, as well as snagging one of the best recruiters in the nation as an assistant, the incoming crop of freshmen is arguably the best in Missouri history.

According to 247Sports, the Tigers have the eighth-best 2017 recruiting class in the country. There are 5-star talents such as Michael Porter Jr. and brother Jontay Porter (who reclassified to join), as well as 4-star prospects Blake Harris and Jeremiah Tilmon. Add rising 3-star guard C.J. Roberts into the mix, and Missouri has a great nucleus to work with.

This wouldn’t have happened without a string of weird events.

It actually began years before Kim Anderson decided to pop out of a coffin for reasons lost beyond sane people. This new era of Missouri basketball started in the wake of the Frank Haith debacle.

The Tigers aren’t a blue-blood program. Having moved from the brutal Big 12 to the top-heavy SEC for the 2012-13 campaign, with whispers that the NCAA would soon hammer Haith with infractions, there was little reason to believe the program would be on an upswing in the near future.

Missouri had success with Haith. That is undeniable. The cost of that success, though, was greater than it appeared to be worth.

Then Haith did what he does as well as any coach caught in turmoil — he got out of Dodge (to Tulsa) before Dodge got him.

To replace a coach who might forever be under the microscope of the NCAA, but who brings universities success, Missouri played it relatively safe.

The video above was in October of 2016 at Missouri’s Halloween and Hoops preseason scrimmage. It was supposedly Anderson’s way of letting critics know that the program was not yet buried.

Unfortunately for Anderson, he was only somewhat correct. The Missouri Tigers are certainly going through an offseason that feeds the idea of an upcoming meteoric rise, but it is only happening after Anderson’s departure led to the hiring of Cuonzo Martin, who left Berkeley to come to Columbia.

The hire was initially met with mixed reviews. He hasn’t stayed at any one head coaching position longer than three seasons. He was also taking over a program most assumed would take at least that long to turn into a competent one.

However, Martin did something smart. He took another program’s trash and turned it into his own treasure. After Lorenzo Romar was fired as the head coach of Washington for failing to succeed with numerous NBA lottery picks for several seasons, Martin saw a chance to expedite the growth of Missouri’s program.

Fast-forward only a few months, and here we are, in a place in college basketball where the Missouri Tigers have a top-10 recruiting class in Year 1 of the Martin era.

That’s the good. Hell, that’s great and incredibly impressive. It does not inherently mean immediate wild success should be expected when the ball tips in a few months, however.

Save for what John Calipari has done with the Kentucky Wildcats, most teams built off the star power of freshmen won’t compete with rosters that have a great balance of upperclassmen and future NBA players.

Sure, the Tigers will have an abundance of projected pros this season, but they will lack the chemistry that many other top programs spend years building in an attempt to be near the best teams in the nation.

It doesn’t mean it is impossible for Missouri to rise to the challenge. It does mean that Martin will have his work cut out for him in developing his core of super-freshmen in great haste. That’s not exactly something Romar — as a head coach — was known for. He became a household name this decade as the coach who failed to make the Big Dance with big time talent in Seattle.

Luckily for Missouri fans, this isn’t just a “Romar and his recruiting tactics” show. He’s a huge cog in this wheel that is trying to get the Tigers going, but it will be up to Martin to expedite the growth of his players. He has a slightly better track record.

In nine seasons as a head coach, Martin has been to the NCAA Tournament twice. Once was with a woefully inept Tennessee offense and the next was with a California Golden Bear roster that featured its own bevy of insanely hyped freshmen — Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.

The latter failed to develop to a substantial degree the following season, which should be slightly concerning in terms of Martin’s chops as a developer of talent, yet one can’t ignore that the former Cal coach did his job when provided 5-star freshmen. A 23-11 (12-6 Pac-12) record might not scream greatness, but getting that team to the NCAA Tournament was a net win.

That’s the evidence, even if somewhat stretched, the Missouri fan base should hold onto when people begin to discuss pumping the brakes on the Tigers making a run to — and in — March. Depending on whom you ask, some are still concerned whether or not the team will land on the bubble come Selection Sunday or is a shoe-in to earn a pair of dancing slippers.

As always, it is far too early to know for sure in August. Too many variables remain between now and the start of the season to make wild declarations. To be fair, though, there are rational predictions that can be said louder than a whisper.

We now know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that Missouri won’t be a cupcake. The jokes made at the program’s expense have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Barring any unforeseen calamities or wild missteps, the Tigers should — at the very least — be on the rise.

When we are a few games into the season, everyone will know more. Just exactly how special is Michael Porter Jr.’s “special?” Can this group of insanely gifted freshmen mesh quickly enough in the non-conference season that they make a run to the top of the SEC? And so on.

There are still more questions than answers.

As for the realistic expectations for Missouri in the upcoming season? It is to enter the voyage cautiously and avoid too much hyperbole, because it is far better to not be seen coming than to be the team other SEC rosters can’t wait to embarrass.

If the Tigers allow themselves to develop while avoiding the pitfalls that come with buying their own hype, whatever version they end up being at the start of the season will pale in comparison to the one it will look like at the end.

It is a process. While the long play of removing Missouri as a college basketball joke was fixed nearly overnight, the short play of turning this specific team into a winner might take a minute.

Patience, Missouri basketball fanatics, is a virtue. Remember that if the Tigers don’t start this season like world-beaters.

Joseph has been covering basketball for nearly a decade. He is the host of the Relatively Speaking Podcast and a columnist for FanRag Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.

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