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No. 1 Tennessee provides example of what Martin, Missouri can build

For the first time in more than a decade, an SEC team not named Kentucky or Florida sits atop the Associated Press Top 25 poll. After a rousing beatdown of Arkansas and a skin-of-their-teeth win over Alabama — combined with Virginia’s loss to Duke and Duke’s loss to Syracuse — the Vols moved into the top spot for the first time since Feb. 25, 2008. The only other SEC team to occupy a spot in the top-five during that span, outside of the Gators and Wildcats, was Texas A&M in March 2014.

The league as a whole hasn’t been as impressive as many pontificated before the season began, but the Vols have no doubt been the exception. They have non-conference wins over Louisville and then-No. 1 Gonzaga, and they’ve won their first five SEC games by an average of 20.6 points per game. What many people seem to be forgetting is that three years ago, Tennessee finished 12th out of 14 teams in the league, and after its second consecutive season without a winning record, people questioned whether Rick Barnes was actually the right fit in Knoxville.

Tennessee has struggled to pull top talent out of prep hotbed Memphis, and outside of 2019 signee Josiah James, the Vols haven’t had much success signing top-tier talent in general — there’s not a single four- or five-star player on the roster. Without an immediate injection of blue-chip recruits or graduate transfers, Barnes and Co. had to endure their share of growing pains during his first two seasons. Outside of the miraculous luck of Michael Porter Jr. and Jontay Porter landing in his lap, Cuonzo Martin has dealt with many of the same problems Tennessee did in 2016 and 2017.

Both programs were at historic low places when Barnes and Martin took over — Missouri because of the ineptitude of its previous coaching staff and Tennessee because of the scandal that followed Donnie Tyndall from Southern Miss and eventually led to his ouster. Martin himself hasn’t had much success with highly-rated recruiting targets, especially those locally (Courtney Ramey and E.J. Liddell come to mind). But he has found success with a number of players who were either unheralded or flamed out elsewhere that have paid dividends: Kassius Robertson, Javon Pickett, Mark Smith, Jordan Barnett and Xavier Pinson.

And at the same time, he’s largely passed on one-year fixes or players he doesn’t feel fit into his program’s culture. Missouri showed interest in a number of graduate transfers last spring, but ultimately, it opted to go after Pinson and Smith, who both have multiple years of eligibility left.

Barnes has built a championship-level roster with players that were largely unwanted by high-major schools. They were lacking skill, and in many cases, considered too small to be successful at the high-major level. Grant Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, had two other high-major offers. Six-foot-five power forward Admiral Schofield, who himself had only three high-major offers, is almost certainly a first-team All-SEC honoree at the end of the year. And Jordan Bone, who once considered transferring because of a lack of minutes, has developed into one of the best point guards in the SEC, doubling his scoring output over last season.

Tennessee has been in on its share of high-major targets, and it beat out Duke and a host of others for James, Rivals’ 15th-ranked player in 2019. But Barnes also signed a pair of lightly recruited forwards in Davonte Gaines and Drew Pember, neither of which had a single high-major offer. It seems a little odd, no? The reigning SEC champions bringing in a recruiting class that likely won’t crack the top-25. But Barnes has praised their skill and versatility, and they’re exactly the type of players he’s won with for the past two years.

Martin, while still pursuing top-level prospects, has narrowed his focus to versatile, athletic prospects who he sees fitting into his “positionless” basketball system. He’s signed two players in Mario McKinney and Tray Jackson that teeter between multiple positions and are not particularly refined offensively, but each has exceptional athleticism and defensive potential — the two things Martin covets. Missouri’s newest 2019 target, Myron Gardner, has flown under the radar, despite averaging more than 12 points per game on the EYBL circuit this summer and average a double-double playing for SPIRE Academy this winter. The scouting report? Long, athletic and versatile with an array of unpolished offensive tools to work with.

They’re each the type of players Missouri, at least initially, has to build its program around. Results with top, in-state prospects have been, and will likely continue to be, mixed. Prospects like Cam’Ron Fletcher and Caleb Love are ones that Missouri has to pursue, and heavily. One of Kim Anderson’s greatest failures was his inability bring highly rated local players to Columbia. At the same time, there’s almost no chance of them competing with blue blood programs for top-5 or too-10 prospects outside of one-offs like Josh Christopher. Barnes and the Vols have proven there’s a way to win — and win consistently — in the SEC without top-flight players. It no doubt takes time, and it will require a bit of patience, which the Tigers' administration has shown with Martin's seven-year contract. But Missouri would be wise to follow the gameplan Barnes had laid out for it.