The best recruit in the history of Missouri basketball hurt himself in warm-ups before the first game he played. There are two directions you can go with this, and it should be said right here at the top that neither is wrong. How you feel is how you feel. You don’t have to explain yourself to no man.
Maybe this turns out like a couple I know. They were mugged on their first date. This is a thing that happened. They were getting to know each other, nervous, all those questions about what the other was thinking and then, boom, just like that. Robbed.
And they went out again! Didn’t get robbed that time, either. Or the next, or the time after that, and now they’re married. Happy ending!
The point here is that Michael Porter Jr., the most famous man on this campus before he ever took a class, limping out of warm-ups and playing just 2 minutes of Mizzou’s 74-59 season-opening win over Iowa State on Friday night does not have to be a punchline.
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Or, at least, it doesn’t have to end up as a punchline.
Because that’s the easy line: the only thing that would’ve been more Mizzou is if he got hurt in the north end zone.
Here’s a truth: Mizzou looked mostly terrific without him.
Here’s another: Mizzou won’t be the Washington of last year, or the LSU of the year before, teams that missed the NCAA Tournament despite being led by a top NBA pick.
“Mike’s a talented player, but we’re a good basketball team,” MU coach Cuonzo Martin said. “And we’re trying to be a good program.”
Anything said about the outcome without a disclaimer about Iowa State is incomplete. The Cyclones are in full rebuild, picked next to last in the Big 12. This won’t be the last time they’re blown out.
But that misses the point, and not just because this Iowa State team probably could’ve beaten any of the last three Mizzou teams.
You already know the context of what this season means at Mizzou. They have sold every ticket they have to sell. Seats that haven’t had a human in them for years went for $150 on the secondary market, and this is for a college basketball game before Thanksgiving.
Already, Mizzou has taken in $3.7 million in ticket sales. That’s a 75 percent bump from last year, with the potential for more. The Tigers are going from an SEC Network staple to regular dates on ESPN, ESPN2, and even CBS. That doesn’t directly bring in more money, but it does directly bring more exposure, which will turn into more money.
There is so much riding on this season. Porter has said he doesn’t necessarily expect to leave for the NBA in the spring, but he would be college basketball’s most unlikely sophomore in quite some time. He is a pick for most preseason All-America teams, and the Kevin Durant comparisons are so common they approach cliche.
But — and this probably needs to be said — assuming he is healthy soon and going forward this was maybe not the debut so many came to see but it was in many ways more encouraging.
Porter’s talent will shine soon enough. There seems to be no conceivable way he is not a very good college player, and little chance he won’t be a star. He is said to be a good teammate, with an understanding of his place within a bigger structure. He will create open shots for teammates, and even with some muscle to add to his 6-foot-10 frame means he’ll be a nuisance as an offensive rebounder.
But at least on this night, his teammates didn’t need him. Their energy didn’t dip, they defended well, and particularly if you judge on the curve of a season opener, their shot selection was terrific.
Jeremiah Tilmon and Kevin Puryear, in particular, showed enough to believe in.
Tilmon is 6-foot-10, 252 pounds, and a top-50 recruit. If there was no Porter, Tilmon (who committed after and at least in part because Porter committed) would count as Mizzou’s best recruit in years. Martin calls Tilmon one of the best energy players on the team, and he’ll outrun nearly anyone big enough to guard him.
Tilmon has always been blessed with the size, athleticism, and timing to be a good defender but has so far shown an offensive game far beyond what was expected. He scored 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, much of it with smooth footwork that consistently gives him the advantage.
Puryear, whose teams had gone 18-45 in his two seasons since graduating from Blue Springs South, is easy to feel good for. You can see the work he’s put into conditioning, and he has a nice inside-outside game that will give the other side problems — particularly as a complement to the talent now around him. He scored 17 with eight rebounds on 6-of-7 shooting, perhaps the primary collector of the minutes and opportunities that would’ve gone to Porter.
“I can’t even remember the last time we sold out,” Puryear said.
“It felt amazing, actually,” his teammate Jordan Barnett said.
This is just one night, and in some ways the least important. So much more will happen, and except to fit narratives that may develop over the next few months, you won’t think much about this when the important games start.
But we do know this: Mizzou basketball is important again. Fun again. Loud again. That’s nice to feel again, after these last three years, and the night we all expected to see Porter play his first real game instead became the night we saw his teammates bury what was essentially a replica of Mizzou’s last three teams.
You can focus on Porter being hurt, and nobody should say you’re wrong, but that’s an encouraging night.
All the same, yeah, it’ll be nice to see Porter get through warm-ups the next time he suits up.