Before Missouri took the court on Friday night at Bridgestone Arena for its first NCAA Tournament game in five years, coach Cuonzo Martin wrote this on the board in the locker room:
“Did you play as hard as you can play?”
By the time his team retreated into the locker room after a fiasco of a first half in what would become a 67-54 loss to Florida State, this might as well have been a taunt.
Martin was, in his own words, “very angry” at the cave-in he’d witnessed on the way to a 22-point halftime deficit.
Which was probably mild compared to what Mizzou fans were feeling as the Tigers were on the way to extending the school’s NCAA Tournament victory drought to eight years and counting.
That’s the longest since the one between 1944 and 1976 and unsightly enough this time around that you wondered for a half if it was really any better to have a team even get here if it was going to play like this.
By the time Martin wrote “Fight” on the same board at halftime, something absorbed to greater effect and something we’ll get back to, the cause was basically lost.
Mizzou had a rousing rally to cut the lead to six, but by then, as Jeremiah Tilmon put it, MU was “dead tired.”
The story of the season is bigger than the first half, of course, but the story of the game was rooted in that.
He finished his third and what figures to be his last college game with his face in a towel and in tears as he left the court.
Instead of his return propelling MU, through no fault of his own, it was more like a disturbance in the force.
“I feel like I was second-guessing myself …,” he said after grabbing 10 rebounds and scoring 16 points on four of 12 field goals.
It was just too much to ask of him, really, and you should blame circumstance — not Porter.
Meanwhile, the Tigers missed 18 of 23 field-goal attempts in the decisive half, had 10 turnovers with just two assists and uncorked slapstick moments like a Kassius Robertson pass caroming off Reed Nikko’s chest and Jordan Geist getting pickpocketed in the open court by the Seminoles’ C.J. Walker.
“It hurt, just to see them kind of getting anything they wanted,” Robertson said. “We weren’t flowing at all, and on the defensive end we were giving up easy baskets, dunks, open threes. It wasn’t like us at all.”
It really wasn’t, and that’s the thing:
This literally wasn’t the same team it had been through much of this season of revival.
It was one challenge for MU to figure out how to weave in MPJ, the nation’s top recruit who’d played just once since the season opener on Nov. 10.
If he were at full-strength and resembled the irresistible force he was projected to be, Mizzou might have been able to make it work.
But as it was, with Porter being gassed and out of sync with his teammates, his long-anticipated return was a no-win situation.
Meanwhile, just as MU was trying to finesse that, it was reduced to seven scholarship players following the suspension of Jordan Barnett, MU’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, after his DWI arrest last week.
Martin addressed that aspect with perspective that tells you a lot about his ability to connect with his players — part of the reason that Mizzou’s future is bright and that he was able to guide the Tigers to more than twice as many wins as they had last season (20-8) and more Southeastern Conference wins (10) than they’d had in the last three years combined (8).
On one hand, Martin holds Barnett accountable for what he did.
On the other, Martin said the blessing is that nobody lost their life, and he knows Barnett feels miserable about the repercussions on and off the court.
“He’s learned that lesson — pain enough not being part of the team,” he said, adding, “I’m not in the business of beating him up.”
Besides, while he knows Barnett could have had an impact on this game, Martin also doesn’t suffer excuses and noted the void wasn’t what sabotaged MU in the dreadful first half.
No, he said, “That’s effort, that’s toughness, that’s focus.”
Which takes us to the second half and a snapshot of a season spent trying to find the way back.
Implored, if not downright intimidated, into fighting back, Mizzou took it at FSU admirably.
When Porter hit two free throws with 9 minutes, 53 seconds left, cutting the FSU lead to 50-44, you had to wonder if there was going to be some magic after all.
But it all unraveled in the next few minutes, and next thing you know Florida State was on a 15-0 run to put it away.
There was something in that grit for Martin, as it turned out, something that he said would make him sleep better.
Fight, the same thing he’d infused and seen in a redemptive team that he navigated through everything from Porter’s potentially ruinous injury to multiple transfers, a Title IX investigation of Terrence Phillips that led to his dismissal from the team and the late-season loss of Cullen VanLeer to a knee injury.
Fight, which he looks at like this:
“If you’re just playing basketball, then this is not enough,” he said. “You compete and you battle and you’re fighting, not necessarily physical fighting but you’re fighting.
“You’re playing for something. If it’s just really basketball to you, then this is not the place for you.”
It’s hard to know why that wasn’t there in the first half, and that will be a lingering aftertaste of the season.
But that’s only part of the takeaway.
“I think we’ve done a lot of remarkable things,” junior Kevin Puryear said. “I think we brought a fan base back to Missouri that was virtually almost nonexistent last year, (got) people back in the seats, (got) people excited to come to Mizzou basketball games again. For all of us to be a part of that, we think about that. We’re proud that we’re Missouri.”
Martin could be anyone’s national coach of the year after what he did this season, the recruiting pipeline is bubbling and this is the start of something special under his will and his way.
Even on this night, you couldn’t help but be struck when Martin found himself saying, “One day, we’ll be the last team standing.”
That may or may not ever come to pass, but this much you can know despite the growing pains:
“Is there a lot of work to be done? Yes” he said. “Do we have to do recruiting and all those things? Of course.
“But I like where we are as a program. We’ll only get better.”