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Cuonzo Martin shakes hands with the Missouri mascot, Truman the Tiger, after being formally introduced as the new head basketball coach at the University of Missouri Monday, March 20, 2017, in Columbia, Mo. Martin has spent the past three seasons as head coach at the University of California and comes to Missouri with hopes he can revive the struggling program. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The addition of Missouri to the Southeastern Conference could really enhance the league on the men's basketball front.

Half a decade later, that thought may finally come to fruition.

The Tigers have their third coach since joining the SEC before the 2012-13 season, with Frank Haith having steered the program straight into NCAA sanctions and with Kim Anderson having failed to pick up the pieces with his three-year record of 27-68. Grabbing the reins now is Cuonzo Martin, the former Tennessee coach who has assembled a top-10 signing class headlined by top overall prospect Michael Porter Jr., a 6-foot-10, 215-pound forward from Seattle.

Missouri went 8-24 this past winter and 2-16 in league play. Nobody is expecting a similar outcome for the 2017-18 season.

"That's a team that's looking to go from worst to first," Alabama coach Avery Johnson said on a recent league teleconference. "Cuonzo's obviously had a heck of a run coaching in the SEC and coaching out West, and now he's put together a really talented team at Missouri in a short period of time. It's great for Missouri and great for the SEC, because I think he will continue to upgrade SEC basketball.

"We're trying to position ourselves to get seven or more teams in the NCAA tournament. The teams in our conference are going to be much stronger, and the RPIs are going to be a lot higher."

The SEC is coming off a year in which three teams — Florida, Kentucky and surprising Final Four participant South Carolina — reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament for the first time since Auburn, Kentucky and LSU got there in 1986.

Missouri won 30 games during its final season in the Big 12 and reached the NCAA tournament during its SEC debut in 2013, but the Tigers were bounced in the first round by Colorado State and have gone 17-55 in SEC play in the four seasons since. The Tigers have been far more effective in football amid their new surroundings, winning SEC East titles in 2013 and 2104, and their women's basketball program tied for third in the league this past season and has reached the second round of the last two NCAA tournaments.

Enter Martin

Martin's three three-year stints at Missouri State (61-41), Tennessee (63-41) and California (62-39) have yielded nearly identical records. His 63 triumphs with the Volunteers surpassed every other SEC program during those seasons except Kentucky and Florida, with his 2014 team reaching the Sweet 16 in NCAA play.

His 2016 Golden Bears earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, which was the highest seed in program history.

"I'm excited for Cuonzo," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "Timing is everything, and he's been able to come in and put together a tremendous recruiting class. Porter is one of the best players in the country — he's 6-10 or 6-11, but he's like a guard — but they not only have him but (freshman forward Jeremiah) Tilmon and the (junior guard Terrence) Phillips kid who is there now.

"Cuonzo has been through the wars of the SEC and knows what it takes to compete at a high level, and I'm sure he'll turn that thing around pretty quick. He'll get those guys to play at a high level, and all that does is provide another team that is on everybody's radar to play some postseason basketball."

Missouri already is encountering sizable expectations for a team coming off an 8-24 debacle. In his first projected bracket for the 2018 NCAA tournament, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Arkansas in his 68-team field and has Missouri among the first eight teams to just miss the cut.

Martin recognizes what is being written and said about the potential of his first season in Columbia but isn't harping on it.

"We talk realistically about defending, rebounding and playing hard as a team, because those are things you can control night in and night out," he said. "We talk about playing as hard as you can play. There are so many unknowns as we go through this, and I would like to think we had everything all figured out now, but we have a ways to go.

"I've never been one to get consumed about the expectations, because at the end of the day these guys have to understand how hard it is to be a student-athlete and to be successful in the classroom and to be good in the community. We're not just going to games. We want to make sure these are well-rounded young men."

Quite the haul

Porter committed to Washington last summer, but Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar was fired in March after a 9-22 finish.

Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant on Romar's staff, and Martin quickly snatched him up as well as the services of his sons, Michael Jr. and Jontay, who also is 6-10 and is a five-star prospect in the 2018 class. Martin's first class of signees not only contains the 6-10 tandem of Porter and Tilmon but point guards Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts.

All four Missouri signees are considered among the top 150 or so nationally.

"The guys on our roster seem to get along well, and they compete at a high level," Martin said. "They understand how hard we have to play to be a successful team."

Martin took over a Tennessee program that had thrived for six seasons under Bruce Pearl but had spiraled in 2011, when Pearl was let go by former Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton. Tennessee was picked to finish 11th in the SEC at the start of the 2011-12 season, when the league had 12 teams for a final time, but Martin guided the Vols to a tie for second.

Tennessee never finished worse than fifth in the SEC during Martin's three years, and landing in that neighborhood in his first season at Missouri almost certainly would result in an NCAA bid for a league now viewed very favorably after its performance in March.

"It's really exciting to make the splash that they've been able to make in the short period of time since Cuonzo has gotten the job," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "He's bringing in Michael Porter and a number of kids, and he's inheriting a situation where he has some good young players who have been baptized by fire in their freshman and sophomore years.

"Typically, when you become a junior at this level, now you're really ready to take the next step, and he's got some guys ready to do that. I think Missouri basketball is going to take a major step forward this season."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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