University of Missouri

'We'd be in a different position:' How Kassius Robertson carried Missouri's season

Mizzou seniors preview Arkansas game

Kassius Robertson, Brett Rau and Jordan Barnett discuss the team’s upcoming game against Arkansas.
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Kassius Robertson, Brett Rau and Jordan Barnett discuss the team’s upcoming game against Arkansas.

Kassius Robertson was frustrated and well, mothers know best, right?

He had come to Missouri to play his final season of college basketball alongside the nation’s top recruit. Four years at Canisius College couldn't get him into the Big Dance, so maybe Michael Porter Jr. could.

Eleven days after the season started, Porter had back surgery and it looked like he wouldn't return. Robertson called his mom in Toronto.

“It’s your time to step up,” Shannon Robertson told her son. “You have to.”

Robertson has done just that as Missouri enters its final regular-season game Saturday against Arkansas as a near-lock to make its first NCAA Tournament in five years.

Many coaches throughout the Southeastern Conference have called Robertson an all-SEC player after he led the Tigers in scoring at 16.6 points per game and shot 43 percent from three-point range.

Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin has called Robertson’s season “astounding,” and he doesn’t want to think about where the Tigers would be without the 6-foot-3 guard. Martin has said throughout the season that Robertson has emerged as the team’s leader and exceeded expectations.

For a fifth-year senior who only had one Division I scholarship offer coming out of high school, this season has been just another thing he’s had to work for on a journey that has made him work for everything.

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Missouri Tigers guard Kassius Robertson (3) scored on a jumper over Mississippi Rebels forward Justas Furmanavicius (50) in the first half during the University of Missouri and University of Mississippi Southeastern Conference basketball game at Mizzou Arena on Tuesday, February 20, 2018, in Columbia, Missouri. Shane Keyser

Before Porter, there was Wiggins

Before he crossed paths with Porter, playing alongside sensational talent was nothing new to Robertson.

As a high school sophomore he played with future Kansas and Minnesota Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins at Vaughn Secondary School outside Toronto. Wiggins led the team to a 45-1 record in 2011 while Robertson sat on the bench.

“There were times I played,” Robertson said, "when we were up by 30 or 40 points.”

After Robertson’s longtime AAU coach Shane James took a teaching job at Thornlea Secondary School, Robertson followed him in hopes of getting more playing time and exposure.

Even after Robertson averaged 22 points, five assists and two steals per game as a senior, Division I schools were still hesitant to offer him a scholarship.

Jimmy Patsos of Loyola (Md.), James’ former coach who now coaches at Siena, watched Robertson but didn’t offer a scholarship, citing his size and weight. Columbia brought Robertson in for a visit but passed.

It wasn’t until Canisius assistant Mike Mennenga watched an open gym that Robertson got a serious look.

James said Mennenga initially came to Toronto to watch another one of his players, who he thought was Robertson. James told Mennenga that Robertson wasn’t the player he came to watch, but Mennenga offered Robertson a scholarship anyway.

Robertson arrived in Buffalo as a 160-pound guard with a chip on his shoulder. He redshirted his first year at Canisius, and spent most of his time in the gym or the weight room.

Canisius’ campus is in downtown Buffalo and the basketball facility isn’t always open. Robertson routinely pushed the boundaries. One of his close friends, former Canisius forward Jermaine Crumpton, said campus police sometimes told Robertson to leave.

“He got to a point where they sent emails out to the coaches saying we can’t be out after hours,” Crumpton said.

But Robertson did not let that stop him.

“He got some relationships going with some of the custodians,” said Mennenga, who now coaches at Oregon. “He probably kept the lights on a little bit later than regular students. That’s a testament to Kassius’ work ethic.”

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Missouri Tigers guard Kassius Robertson (3) threw a pass out of bounds as he was defended by Mississippi Rebels guard Terence Davis (3) in the overtime during the University of Missouri and University of Mississippi Southeastern Conference basketball game at Mizzou Arena on Tuesday, February 20, 2018, in Columbia, Missouri. Ole Miss beat Mizzou 90-87 in overtime. Shane Keyser

Leaving Canisius

Robertson had a standout career at Canisius. His three-point percentage and scoring average increased each season.

His redshirt junior season began with a 93-69 loss at Kentucky on Nov. 13, 2016. He scored a team-high 16 points and helped keep the game close in the first half.

As the Golden Griffins' NCAA Tournament odds dropped through the 2016-17 season, James continued to get calls about Robertson as a potential graduate transfer candidate.

Robertson thought the idea over. His performance against Kentucky convinced him that he could play at a higher level.

When Robertson told his mother that he was leaving Canisius, she suggested he wait to sign with a school in the summer.

Instead, he accelerated the recruiting process and really only considered Missouri and Georgia Tech. He wanted to pick a school quickly and get on campus so he could begin working out with his team.

When Robertson visited Missouri in April 2017, Martin’s coaching philosophy and the idea of playing alongside Porter won him over. Robertson knew the star freshman could help get him on the radar of NBA teams.

He committed shortly after visiting and arrived in June for the team’s summer workouts.

“Missouri,” James said, “was a no-brainer for him.”

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Missouri Tigers guard Kassius Robertson (3) fired a three-pointer as Texas A&M Aggies guard Admon Gilder (3) pursued in the second half during the University of Missouri and Texas A&M University Southeastern Conference basketball game at Mizzou Arena on Tuesday, February 13, 2018, in Columbia, Missouri. Missouri beat A&M 62-58. Shane Keyser

Finding a home at Mizzou

When Robertson arrived in Columbia for summer workouts, his teammates struggled to assess the kind of impact he could make.

Junior forward Kevin Puryear said the team had so much talent that Porter was the only player who stood out. Robertson figured he would be a three-point specialist, someone who could make teams pay for double-teaming Porter.

“I never try to put limits on myself coming in,” Robertson said. “But I was definitely expecting a different role. That’s why I came here in the first place.”

After the team announced Porter would likely miss the season after back surgery, Robertson didn't give up.

“Just because one player is out doesn’t mean we can’t do what we want to do,” he said.

Robertson scored 23 points in Missouri’s blowout win over Wagner on Nov. 13 after he shot 5 for 8 from beyond the arc.

In Missouri’s win over St. John’s on Nov. 24 in Orlando, he scored 17 points and dished out five assists while making one big play after another to secure what was then Missouri’s biggest victory of the season.

Robertson said after Missouri nearly knocked off No. 23 West Virginia two nights later, he realized how good the team could be, but he also saw how quickly things could unravel if the Tigers stopped playing defense or turned the ball over.

He took the loss harder than most because as a veteran, he thought he should’ve done more.

After Missouri dropped three consecutive SEC games, Robertson helped organize late-night team meetings.

Shannon Robertson said after one tough loss this season, her son was in Missouri’s practice gym shooting until 4 a.m. He’s taking advantage of now having constant access to a gym.

“Talent is definitely a requirement for competing at this level,” Mennenga said. “(But) it’s the character inside that really separates you. Kassius embodies all of that.”

Robertson powered Missouri to a five-game winning streak that included wins against Kentucky and Texas A&M, which helped the Tigers' NCAA Tournament odds. During the streak, Robertson averaged 20.6 points per game while shooting 46 percent from three on his way to earning consecutive conference player-of-the-week awards.

He still has a chance to play alongside Porter, too. The star freshman has returned to practice and will be a game-time decision Saturday. If Porter returns to the floor, he'll rejoin a team made better by Robertson in his absence.

“Without him,” Puryear said, “we’d be in a different position.”