Martez Harrison is helping UMKC fill a void that’s three decades old

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Kareem Richardson (AP Photo)

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The defining moment in the history of the UMKC basketball program had nothing to do with Kangaroo basketball.

It was April 19th, 1985. That’s the day that the NBA’s Kings left Kansas City for Sacramento, leaving behind a city with a passion for basketball but without a team to root for. Civic leaders put together a task force to study the city’s dynamics and UMKC’s then-NAIA program to determine if the ‘Roos could be the team to fill that void, and the answer they came up with was to bump the program up to the Division I level and to play their home games in historic Municipal Auditorium, a building that has hosted three Final Fours and the second-most NCAA tournament games of all-time.

The goal was to bring a sense of pride to the city, to build a Division I program that Kansas City bonds with, the way that Wichita has with Wichita State and Springfield has with Missouri State, to have the locals love a team the way Omaha loves Creighton.

And to date, that experiment has failed. UMKC has never been to the NIT, let alone the NCAA tournament. They’ve never won a regular season or conference tournament title. At the Division I level, the Kangaroos have never even had a head coach finish his time with program with a winning record. When Matt Brown was let go in the spring of 2013, he had gone 64-122 in six seasons.

Kids in Kansas City, if they grow up basketball fans, root for Kansas.

Or Missouri.

Or Kansas State.

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Martez Harrison (AP Photo)

For a coach to succeed at UMKC, he needs to get the local fans invested — emotionally, if not financially — in the program and local talent, which there is more than enough of, excited about the program. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

And that’s why the first thing Kareem Richardson did when he was hired by UMKC was to get a line on the best players from the area that had yet to commit to a school.

The name that popped up? Martez Harrison, a two-time all-state point guard from University Academy in Kansas City that was spending a prep year at Brewster Academy (New Hampshire). “Right away I reached out to his prep school coach, Jason Smith,” Richardson told NBCSports.com last week. “I’ve got a pretty decent relationship with Jason and he told me a lot of good things about Martez.”

The best thing Richardson heard? That Harrison, despite being a three-star recruit and despite beating out more highly-regarded recruits for playing time at one of the nation’s most well-known prep schools, had no high-major scholarship offers. Harrison held offers from Southern Illinois and Western Illinois when he graduated high school. Fordham, Canisius, Florida-Gulf Coast and LIU-Brooklyn came calling during his time at Brewster, but none of the big boys were interested.

Harrison is 5-foot-11, and while he’s listed as a point guard, he built his reputation in high school as a scorer; plenty of the big boys had questions about his ability to be a full-time point guard, which was fine with Richardson, who was recruiting his first class to UMKC while helping Louisville win the 2013 national title.

“Once our season ended at Louisville, I made a point that he was the first guy to visit,” Richardson said. “I made it out to Brewster Academy to spend some time with him, and just kind of told him my vision and shared my vision about the program and how I think it would be nice for a hometown kid like him to help in the process of building and moving towards the future.”

Harrison agreed, committing to the ‘Roos two weeks later on his visit to the campus.

“I was just very excited to come back home,” Harrison told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Just being a hometown kid. I’ve always thought that UMKC [could win].”

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The wins didn’t come all that easily for the ‘Roos in Harrison and Richardson’s first season on campus. They finished just 10-20 overall and 7-9 in the WAC, and it won’t help matters this season that UMKC will lose a number of seniors off of last year’s roster. But in a season where there weren’t too many bright spots, Harrison was one. He finished the year as one of the most productive freshmen in the country, averaging 17.2 points, 3.3 boards and 3.8 assists. He averaged 18.6 points in league play while shooting 44.0% from three.

In short, Richardson has landed himself a guy that will, before he leaves UMKC, win a WAC Player of the Year award.

And more importantly, his star, the kid that he will build his program around, is from the city, and it’s already starting to pay off.

“A lot of young guys ask me about the program. I think that we’re definitely doing a good job grabbing local people’s attention,” Harrison said, a point that Richardson doubled-down on. “I definitely believe it’s paying dividends,” he said. “Martez is very well known around the Kansas City area, and what it’s done is that it certainly has attracted other Kansas City area kids. It helps us be able to get into the door with some of those up and coming kids in the area because they think so highly of Martez.”

You can see it in who the program is bringing in. Broderick Newbill, a Kansas City native that transferred into UMKC from Fresno State, did so because of his friendship with Harrison, Richardson said. Two of the five freshmen that Richardson brought in this season are from the Kansas City suburbs, one of whom, Noah Knight, played for Mo-Kan Elite and is the nephew of Kansas legend Danny Manning. Knight’s sister plays for Kansas.

UMKC still has a long way to go before they become relevant in the WAC race, let alone relevant in a town with as many local sports teams as Kansas City. I know one of the local sports radio hosts well, and when I asked, he had no clue who Martez Harrison was, and it’s his job to know all sports that are relevant in the city.

But Richardson knew that coming in. He knew this wasn’t going to be a quick reboot. Building a program from the ground up is not an easy thing to do. Landing one local kid was never going to be the answer.

It was, however, a step in the right direction, one that, if all goes according to plan, will allow Richardson to complete the plan that Kansas City’s mayor set in motion three decades ago.