Basketball games sometimes hinge so much on one player. This one, a 77-59 Missouri loss to Utah, did. Or really, it hinged on the absence of one.
A team needs someone to turn to for points when nothing else is working — when, for example, confidence wanes while a team begins a game 1-15 from the floor and 0-8 on three-pointers. That’s what Missouri did against Utah.
Michael Porter Jr. is that player for MU, and he didn’t travel here with the Tigers. Porter, Mizzou’s star freshman, missed his second straight game because of what the team has only described as a left leg injury.
It wasn’t a problem when Porter left two minutes into Missouri’s win over an Iowa State team that lost to Wisconsin-Milwaukee by 18. And he didn’t need to play when the Tigers beat Wagner by 44 points on Monday. But on Thursday, in Missouri’s first road game, the Tigers looked like a team missing its star player, and Porter remains out indefinitely.
This game could be an aberration if Porter returns soon. Or it could be a signifier of what’s to come if Porter remains out as the Tigers’ level of competition increases next week, in the eight-team AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, Fla.
If Porter is not available for that tournament, Missouri will need to answer a question that presented itself in this loss on Thursday: Other than Porter, does Mizzou have a scorer it can consistently turn to when other Tigers struggle?
Coach Cuonzo Martin said the Tigers have “several of them.” Junior Kevin Puryear said “it’s just a matter of who has the hot hand.”
“Unfortunately,” Puryear added, “nobody had that tonight.”
The Tigers’ three leading scorers and veteran leaders — Puryear, Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson — combined for 27 points on 4-of-19 shooting. They made 2 of their 16 three-point attempts.
Mizzou made just 34.6 percent of its field-goal attempts overall.
“I got a lot of open threes,” Robertson said. “I shot a lot of open threes. I shot a couple tough ones, I guess. You know, I couldn’t hit the side of the backboard if I wanted to tonight.”
By the time the Tigers scored their first points, on a Reed Nikko layup more than four minutes into the game, they had missed seven shots, including a trio of three-point attempts.
Missouri’s other hyped freshmen — center Jeremiah Tilmon, point guard Blake Harris and forward Jontay Porter — weren’t much better than the veterans. They combined for 12 points on 2-of-11 shooting.
Here was Tilmon’s most important stat: five fouls. After fouling out against Wagner earlier this week, Tilmon did so again. He scored two points, grabbed two rebounds and played just six minutes against the Utes.
Before answering a question about the center, Martin shook his head for a brief moment.
“It’s tough,” Martin said of Tilmon’s troubles. “We have to continue to work in that area. He’s a presence on the floor. We need him on the floor. When you get them (fouls) early, it takes him out of the game.”
At least two of Tilmon’s fouls on Thursday were clearly avoidable.
The first came after the Tigers’ first possession, when the 6-foot-10 Tilmon tried to steal a ball from a Utah guard who had corralled in a long rebound. Tilmon came out of the game immediately, and soon after Martin brought him back in, Tilmon ran into Utah forward Jayce Johnson near the top of the key, as though he was trying to make a point. They each received a foul.
Tilmon first subbed out less than 40 seconds into the game. Martin hoped it would calm the center down. It didn’t. What it did do, the coach said, was cause his offense to lose its way on a night that Martin was satisfied with the shots his team took early on, even if they didn’t result in many points.
“When you go to your bench early … then all the sudden it kind of mixes up some of your package,” Martin said.
When Tilmon was on the floor, he was mostly ineffective. He forced a shot near three Utah defenders the first time he touched the ball and was scoreless in the first half. He looked like a freshman. So did Blake Harris, who the team said was probable to play with a left leg injury and was the first guard off the bench for the Tigers.
Harris’ two first-half turnovers were when Missouri appeared to struggle most, as Utah — which also struggled to score early — found an offensive rhythm.
With just more than four minutes remaining in the first half, Harris tried to inbound the ball from underneath the hoop and threw it near halfcourt, where MU’s Terrence Phillips stood. But Utah freshman guard Donnie Tillman tipped it and scored a fastbreak, and-one layup.
Minutes later, as Puryear tried to seal off his defender to post up outside the paint, Harris floated a pass inside, thinking Puryear was headed that way. They looked at each other and dropped their heads.
“The hype and stuff is nice and all that, but (we’ve) got to get back to reality at some point,” Puryear said. “The reality is this team has a long way to go, defensively, offensively. We just need to grow as a team.”
Both of these plays happened as Utah closed the first half on a 14-7 run, while Utah’s Tillman scored seven of the points, including one of the Utes two threes to close the half with a 35-19 lead.
It was the start of a defensive breakdown that the Tigers — who had held their first two opponents to sub-40 field goal percentages — never fixed. Utah shot 46 percent from the field, 32 percent from three.
Where did Missouri’s defensive problems start?
“Everywhere,” Robertson said.
What caused them?
“I don’t even know what the hell to say honestly, guys,” Puryear said.
Tillman scored 11 points and recorded 10 rebounds for Utah. Forward David Collette led the Utes with 17 points. He is 24 years old, 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds. He dominated Missouri’s young post players.
“He pretty much did whatever he wanted to do, and that can’t happen ever again,” Puryear said of Collette, who scored 11 of his points in the second half, when he converted 5 of 6 free-throw attempts. “That’s really all I got to say about it. He kicked our rears.”
Missouri’s second-half offensive numbers were better. After making 1 of 13 three-point attempts in the first half, the Tigers made 4 of 14 in the second half. They shot 28.1 percent better from the field.
But the Utes shot better in the second half, too. They made 5 of their 13 three-point tries in the period, and they opened it on a 16-7 run over less than four minutes to produce a 25-point lead with 16:22 left in the game. Missouri barely got closer than that the rest of the way.
The Tigers’ next game is Monday at Mizzou Arena, against Emporia State. They should win that and lead almost throughout, just as they did in their two wins. But it won’t prove much.
Earlier this week, Martin joked that he didn’t know why he scheduled this game against Utah. He did so because he wanted to see how his team would respond in a true road environment early in the season. He also saw how his team played when open shots weren’t falling and MU’s best player couldn’t help
Porter Jr. alone probably could not have make up for an 18-point deficit, but he could have given the Tigers more confidence early, when Missouri struggled to score.
“You’ve got to be focused,” Martin said. “You’ve got to be locked in. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s how we’re playing.”
And at least to some degree, it’s a matter of who is playing for the Tigers.