When presumed program savior Michael Porter Jr. abruptly left the floor at Mizzou Arena with back trouble less than 2 minutes into Missouri’s opener against Iowa State and soon was said to be out for the season, the latest cruel twist in the oft-tortured annals of MU sports was underway.
Many assumed another season had been surrendered, this time with a nasty extra dose of anguish considering all the hype over the top recruit in the nation had led to a frenzy of anticipation after several dark years.
But as much as Porter would have meant to Mizzou, and still might if you believe he could yet emerge to play this season, what was always going to define this season was the sum of the parts and first-year coach Cuonzo Martin’s ability to wring and coax and meld them together.
It’s a team game, after all, one that ultimately hinges on what everyone does for and with everyone else.
Which accounts for how and why Mizzou beat No. 21 Kentucky 69-60 on Saturday at Mizzou Arena, establishing another landmark of sorts in the brewing rebirth of the program.
This isn’t a vintage Kentucky powerhouse, at least not right now.
But Kentucky is also days removed from a win at No. 7 West Virginia, and it remains an elite program … and one that MU hadn’t beaten in any of their 10 previous meetings.
Add that to a win over then-No. 21 Tennessee on Jan. 17 that broke Mizzou’s 19-game losing streak against ranked teams, and blend in their win at Alabama earlier this week to snap a worrisome three-game losing string: Suddenly, the Tigers (15-8 overall, 5-5 Southeastern Conference) not only are enhancing a case to make the NCAA Tournament but improving at the most telling time of the season.
But after Mizzou matched its SEC victory total of the last two seasons before a roaring crowd that appeared nearly as full as the 15,061 seats sold for the game, senior Jordan Barnett summed it up in a healthy way.
“I’m not treating this one any different just because of the name on the jerseys,” said Barnett, who wasn’t jabbing Kentucky but expressing both appreciation for the moment and an understanding that the next game is always the most important one. “Every time we win, it means a lot.”
And it’s happening a lot more, because, as junior Kevin Puryear put it, Martin is bringing things out of all of them they didn’t even know they had in themselves.
That was a powerful statement by Puryear, and you’re lucky if you’ve been taught or coached or otherwise mentored by somebody in your life that’s made you feel that way.
Just as pertinent, Puryear put it in the context of how Martin has weaved together players from the Kim Anderson era (including five of the eight on the floor Saturday) when Martin could have said “I don’t know what to do with these guys.”
“I think we’re really a reflection of him as far as how tough we play and stuff like that,” Puryear said.
This game was testimony to both the grit and the “stuff like that,” a victory forged by the spirit of that connection.
In fascinating contrast to MU’s higher-profile and more talented adversary.
“We still refuse to pass the ball,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said after the game, later adding, “I’m challenged when guys aren’t listening in timeouts. That’s a hard one.
“You know, you call them over (after a foulup following a timeout and say). ‘What didn’t you hear?’”
Answer, at least as Calipari played it out: “I wasn’t listening.”
Martin surely gets a share of that here and there, but not that you’d notice on Saturday with a team that played like one and is taking to heart a fundamental mindset of Martin’s.
As he spoke about all the little things from which the big things come, defense and rebounding and taking charges, Martin simmered it down thusly:
“You have to give yourself to the team.”
On Saturday, that was a crucial difference for MU, which kept making the extra pass — at times appearing more tentative than patient — and absorbing charges and defending:
Kentucky scored just 18 points in the first half, its most meager production in the opening 20 minutes in about a decade, and made just 21 of 67 field goals and 2 of 20 three-pointers.
Some of those were open shots, but as Martin put it: “I imagine they’d make more if nobody was on the floor.”
Meanwhile, everyone on the floor made a difference for MU.
Here was Kassius Robertson leading a late-game free-throw parade with 8 of 8 in the last 2 minutes, 15 seconds to fend off the Wildcats down the stretch while MU failed to make a field goal in the final 6:37.
There was Barnett, shrugging off a recent slump to score 12 of his 16 in the second half — including a three-pointer that capped an 8-0 run when Kentucky had sanded down a 10-point halftime lead to 33-32.
Jontay Porter, who reclassified from his senior year of high school to be here to play with his brother, remained great glue for MU, with 13 points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots and a continued selfless dedication to moving the ball that doesn’t show up in box scores.
Speaking of perhaps underappreciated and unexpected contributions, Cullen VanLeer made a key defensive difference, helping contain Kevin Knox (five points, nine below his average) and grinding for a steal that triggered that 8-0 run.
Because, Robertson noted, that play had been well-scouted and VanLeer read it perfectly — leaving Martin alongside nodding in approval.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah Tilmon had nine points and five rebounds and an important blocked shot late as he avoided the foul trouble that has plagued his season long enough to provide 22 minutes of his 6-foot-10 … influence.
“When he’s in the game, he affects the game in ways you might not think,” said Puryear, who had seven points and five rebounds and a couple memorable assists to Barnett. “His presence on the floor (in itself) is a game-changer.”
Jordan Geist didn’t have a great day, with three turnovers and no assists, but he epitomized the mentality that goes into taking charges and set the tone for the game-saving stretch run of 13 of 14 free throws by hitting two with 3:03 left.
And, heck, Reed Nikko added five rebounds in his 9 minutes and a helpful block and putback.
All part of a team win in a team game.
No doubt the rest of the season still will be marked by speculation about whether Michael Porter Jr. will make it back — a notion that has come to feel like a tired soap opera.
And, of course, that would be a mighty fine thing to get that kind of reinforcement down the stretch.
Saturday, though, was the latest and maybe greatest statement yet that this has always been about a lot more than one person.
It’s about building a program, a task that Michael Porter’s recruitment helped prime but never was going to make or break — as this season so far makes apparent.