As Missouri tipped off against Georgia in the Southeastern Conference tournament on Thursday, Michael Porter Jr. leaned forward in his seat … much like the rest of Mizzou Nation was in anticipation of his first game since Nov. 10.
Moments later, MPJ entered the game to a thunderous ovation and promptly made a layup as the Tigers took a 10-0 lead and the roof was ready to burst off the Scottrade Center.
For a fleeting moment, you could picture some kind of basketball paradise on the horizon, a simpler place where all you had to do was parachute the nation’s top recruit into a group that already was formidable and reset all expectations for the NCAA Tournament.
The reality of reaching any such destination, as it turns out, is more challenging than just pour in a little MPJ and watch MU flourish — as punctuated by fifth-seeded Missouri’s deflating 62-60 clunker of a loss against the 12th-seeded Bulldogs.
For starters, in the process of a distressing loss on a virtual home court, MU squandered the opportunity to enhance its seeding for the NCAA field that will be announced on Sunday.
Instead of making a dent here and a fresh impression on the Division I men’s basketball committee as it puts together the bracket, the Tigers cast a shadow on their ability to integrate MPJ into the mix.
Put another way …
“We beat Georgia when I didn’t play, and we lost to them when I did,” said Porter, who finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds in 23 minutes but hit just 5 of 17 field goals.
As with any loss, of course, there were many reasons for this one.
Among them here were the vanishing acts of Jordan Barnett (1 for 8 from the field, three points) and Kevin Puryear (who played just 10 minutes before fouling out with two points and one rebound) and a lot more foul trouble for MU than Georgia.
Moreover, mere circumstance has to take some blame:
For all the buildup to MPJ’s improbable return from back surgery, the first steps always were going to be tentative in his re-entry from orbit.
Most obviously, no way Porter could instantaneously resume who he was before back surgery and after not practicing for nearly four months — especially having virtually never played at this level.
That was evident Thursday in some labored breathing, some awkward footwork and some overly deliberate or rushed or seemingly heavy-legged shots — including twice being blocked going to the hoop.
Much as MU fans might wish that had played out differently, all of that was to be expected the first time out as he transitions back from the layoff at a time he considers himself perhaps 70 percent healthy.
The first pancake always has lumps, as they say, and that’s less than cause for panic but ample for concern given the time-frame.
“I think the good thing about that is you had it now, so now he’s gone through it,” MU coach Cuonzo Martin said, later adding, “I’m glad he actually got it out of the way and we can move forward.
“Now there are things we can actually look at in practice to put him in a position to be successful.”
But with the clock relentlessly ticking down to the win-or-bust scenarios of March Madness, that may or may not prove true.
More because of the other element that surfaced on Thursday: the team’s sense of flow and rhythm and perception of roles.
That seemed apparent in an offense that was disjointed against the Bulldogs.
And while this team has been perfectly capable of such lapses all season, the disconnect seemed related to new variables in who was doing what and where and when — and either deference to Porter or just him shooting more than the Tigers are used to any one player shooting (only twice this season had any player shot more in a game).
Not that there was anything automatically wrong with the number of shots.
“He took shots that he’s capable of making 90 percent of the time,” said brother Jontay, who led MU with 20 points. “Nobody was mad at him, nobody was frustrated or jealous that he was shooting.”
If they were, nobody was letting on.
Especially not when it comes to a player who was brought here to do just that.
“When he left the game, he was one of the best players in college basketball,” Martin said. “So you don’t come back and say, ‘OK, I’m going to fit into a role.’ His mindset’s still the same.”
As it should be.
Trouble is, it’s a mindset that hasn’t been part of the journey here, a mindset that doesn’t match his physical health and a mindset that has to be melded into what everyone else is doing for all of this to work in a meaningful way MU’s next time out.
Toward that end, there was some upside in all this.
Porter got a chance to flex his repertoire and work to get his legs.
He took a bruising (including an elbow to the face) and was undeterred.
“That’s a physical team,” he said. “That’s a great game for me to come back to.”
He came through with one big shot (a three-pointer that cut the lead to 61-60 with just under a minute left) before nearly delivering another three with 17 seconds to go that might have become the stuff of legend.
Scraping the rust off in a short time will be one thing for Porter and MU.
But the ability of MU to know itself on the court the way it did in his absence is another, making for an entirely new late-season team-building project for Martin.
Or as Jontay Porter put it: “We’re all just excited to kind of grow our chemistry again.”
No big deal, but the final story of the season hinges on their ability to fast-forward that in a matter of days to help make good on what his return seemed to portend.
“I feel like we can be productive with him, because we were very productive without him,” freshman Jeremiah Tilmon said. “Being that he’s here now, I feel like we’re going to be like 10 times better. …
“They’re going to see what he can do when the tournament comes.”
One way or another.