The hype around this Missouri basketball program, a loser the last three seasons and not nationally relevant for even longer, manifested itself in a corner of a hotel ballroom four days ago.
Michael Porter Jr. was the only true freshman to represent his team at the SEC Tipoff media event in Nashville, Tenn., and he drew a crowd that was second only to Kentucky coach John Calipari’s. So with an audience, Porter Jr. made a point. This Missouri team, during the almost certain single season the possible No. 1 NBA Draft pick plays for the Tigers, will not just be interesting, he said. They will be good.
He appears to be right — though just how good remains to be seen.
Sunday’s Showdown for Relief at the Sprint Center between Missouri and Kansas was a charity exhibition that ended with the Jayhawks winning 93-87. But it was also an opportunity for the Tigers to prove themselves against a traditional powerhouse, the sort that would have crushed Missouri in recent seasons.
The mentality around the Tigers is different now, though. Porter Jr. wore a blank look on his face for most of the postgame news conference, and he said he put the loss on himself after shooting 2 for 10 in the second half. He scored 21 points in 23 minutes.
“We knew it was an opportunity with Kansas being a really great team that’s always at the top,” Porter Jr. said. “…We didn’t play as good as we should have. There’s a lot more we could have showed.”
During a 26-7 second half run, the Tigers appeared overwhelmed, unable to contain Kansas center Udoka Azubuike, who had 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting, or guard Devonte’ Graham, who made 6 of 13 threes.
This game had the trappings that could have made for a Missouri disappointment. The Tigers, a young team, played all five freshmen on their roster and started three: Porter, center Jeremiah Tilmon and point guard Blake Harris. A full Sprint Center and raucous crowd of 18,951 could have rattled them. It did not.
Graham’s great first half, in which he made his first five shots, including four three-pointers, could have intimidated them. It did not.
Missouri responded to an eight-point first half deficit with a 20-7 run. Porter Jr. scored the final five points of the half and MU led 44-40 at the break.
Missouri, which ranked 337th in the country in three-point field-goal percentage a season ago, blitzed the Jayhawks with nine threes in the first half. Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett combined for six, and the Tigers showed what their offense could be: wide-open players on the wing who hurt opponents when they make the inevitable choice of double-teaming or collapsing on Porter Jr.
“A lot of teams go into a season with a false sense of who you are,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We’ve certainly done that many times. Maybe exhibition games won’t show you. But that today exposed us in many ways. … Missouri is going to have a great year.”
These teams had only practiced for about three weeks coming into this game, so there was an expected amount of sloppiness. Full-court passes to no one. Turnovers by one team that immediately followed turnovers by the other.
The coaches agreed not to play any zone defense, and Tilmon, who made all five of his field-goal attempts in the game, had five fouls a few minutes into the second half and kept playing. Players were allowed seven — and Tilmon still fouled out.
Missouri’s last lead came with 14:08 remaining, when Kevin Puryear hit a three-pointer that put MU up 59-57. Kansas then went on that 26-7 run over the next 6 minutes, 55 seconds and took a 17-point lead. The Tigers pushed back with a 14-4 run that included seven points from Barnett, who finished with 19 points, but it was not enough.
“I learned that we could compete with the best,” Barnett said. “We had some defensive issues. Once we shore those up, I honestly think we’ll be one of the top teams.”
Missouri will look different when it begins the regular season against Iowa State on Nov. 10. Cuonzo Martin played 12 men Sunday, and he intends to shrink his rotation to nine.
The Tigers appear far better than the teams of the past two No. 1 picks, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons. Both of those one-and-done players missed NCAA Tournaments.
But Mizzou did not win a game they talked about as a means to proving its legitimacy.
When the exhibition was over, Porter Jr. was the first out of the handshake line. He walked off the court alone, and he ignored most of the hands reaching out for high-fives.
“When you’re a competitor, they’re all real games,” Martin said when asked about Porter Jr.
With time, Martin said, Porter Jr. will adjust to the college level, as he faces different defensive strategies, all of which will center on stopping him. He will learn to deal with attention fixated on his every move.
The freshman already knows people pay attention to his every word.