Michael Porter Jr.’s Big Return was going as planned. This was before he airballed. Before he was blocked. Before No. 5 seed Missouri lost 62-60 to No. 12 seed Georgia in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The star freshman was playing again, and almost immediately after checking into the game, he and his younger brother, Jontay, were trapping Georgia’s star Yante Maten in a corner. The defensive possession ended in a Porter Jr. rebound, and seconds later he caught a pass from his brother that set up a transition layup, just Porter Jr.’s second college basket.
“It was,” Jontay Porter said, “kind of surreal.”
It was a bit surreal that a player who was supposed to be out for the entire season after a November back surgery was on the court just before the NCAA Tournament. And it was a bit surreal to see the former No. 1 recruit in the country not look like the All-American Mizzou fans anticipated before the season: The 6-foot-10 athletic forward is used to climbing toward the rim, but here, in the open court, he laid the ball in.
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Jontay Porter said before the injury his older brother would have pulled off a double-windmill dunk there. But Porter Jr. can't do that now. He said he is only "65-70" percent back to being himself, and he does not have his normal explosiveness.
"A couple of times, I got to the rim, and I wanted to go elevate, go dunk the ball," Porter Jr. said. "But that's just not there yet."
Porter Jr. missed six straight shots after that layup, and Mizzou went on a 0-for-14 stretch that helped give Georgia a 33-24 advantage at halftime. The Tigers would tie the game at 39-39 and had a chance to to win at the end on a last-second Kassius Robertson three — but Missouri never led after that first-half scoring drought.
Missouri recorded this disappointing loss for a few reasons:
Because foul trouble hampered Missouri’s big men, especially Kevin Puryear, who scored just two points in 10 minutes of action before being disqualified early in the second half.
Because the Tigers couldn’t stop Maten, the Associated Press’ SEC Player of the Year, who scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
And most importantly, because Mizzou, which shot just 34.4 percent, struggled on offense while trying to fold Porter Jr. back into the team. He required 17 shots to score just 12 points.
Jordan Barnett grabbed an offensive rebound from Robertson’s missed three with seconds remaining, but he did not put up a good shot. Now Mizzou must wait until the NCAA Tournament for another chance at showing the Tigers can develop some chemistry with a star player who had not played for them since the season opener.
Robertson, the leader of the Tigers offense all season, scored just seven points on 10 shots and went stretches without touching the ball while he shared the court with the star freshman. Barnett, Missouri’s No. 2 scorer this season, was 1-for-8 from the field and rarely tried to attack the rim.
At one point during Porter Jr.’s first-half struggles, Puryear seemed to point for the freshman to swing the ball around the perimeter. But instead Porter Jr. drove to the hoop and had a layup blocked.
His missed jump shots looked slow to develop, as though his legs were understandably tired after months off. He airballed a catch-and-shoot opportunity. He missed a turnaround jumper. He was only reliable near the rim.
But he tried to lead MU’s offense anyway.
“I knew at some point that's what it would be because, again, when he left the game, he was one of the best players in college basketball,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “So you don't come back and say, ‘OK, I'm going to fit into a role.’ His mindset is still the same person.”
Porter Jr. said he knows the Tigers needed to get the ball to Barnett and Robertson more often. And he knows he must ignore that Missouri was able to beat this Georgia without him during the regular season but could not do so with him.
Adding an All-American to a 20-win Missouri team does not hurt the Tigers, but it will not be seamless, either.
Porter Jr. was cleared to fully participate in basketball activities two weeks ago and has been practicing. But practice is not like a game. Jontay Porter, who scored 20 points as Missouri’s only reliable player on offense, said his brother is not used to the speed of college competition.
"The whole reason that I really decided to come back is because I felt like I could help the team," Porter Jr. said. "I didn't really care about individuality. I didn’t care how it affected the draft, anything like that, how it affected my stock. I know I’m not 100 percent yet, but still thought I could help the team. That’s the whole reason I’m here to play."
Losing early in this conference tournament means more practice time for Missouri, and perhaps the Tigers can grow more comfortable with Porter Jr. on the floor. But he won’t have another opportunity to adjust to game speed until Missouri’s likely appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
As the drama and excitement around this day wound down and reporters walked away, Porter Jr. finally had a chance to be alone. His first game in months made him look emotionally exhausted, if not physically so.
He sat in a corner of the quiet locker room, rested his elbows on his knees, crossed his arms over his lap and bowed his head. A team staffer patted the freshman on the back, but he did not look up.