Michael Porter Jr. despondent after loss to Florida State in NCAA Tournament
Bridgestone Arena was half full when Michael Porter Jr. subbed out of Mizzou’s NCAA Tournament loss to Florida State. Two minutes remained in a game that was out of reach.
Missouri fans clapped sparingly for Porter Jr. as if he was just another player, rather than the man whose long-awaited return hung over the entirety of this now finished season. Hope that he could be the Tigers' savior had evaporated.
“Go pro!” a man shouted as Porter Jr. walked to the bench.
When the Tigers exited the court and made their way to the locker room, the 6-foot-10 Porter was red in the face. He was wiping away tears while seeming to hold back more.
Missouri lost both games Porter Jr. played after returning from back surgery. He shot 9 of 29 from the field across those two contests, while the Tiger offense struggled to reintroduce a volume scorer at the season’s most critical moment.
On Friday, he scored 16 points, but he required 12 shots to do so.
“I don’t feel like I helped the team,” Porter Jr. said in front of his locker with a swarm of reporters around him.
Mizzou was a flawed team without him, one that relied heavily on three-pointers and defense while lacking a star. But at least that was an identity.
On Friday — just like in Missouri’s SEC Tournament loss to Georgia — Missouri lacked offensive rhythm with Porter Jr. on the floor. He forced shots out of one-on-one offense.
The Tigers promised that their offense would look better than it did in the loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament, that a week of practice had helped them reintegrate Porter. Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin believed his team just needed to get its first game with Porter Jr. back out of the way.
But at times on Friday, Porter and the Tigers looked even worse than they did the week before.
Missouri wanted Porter Jr. to produce most of his offense off of catch-and-shoot looks, but his first field-goal attempt came as he took a few dribbles, played isolation offense and air-balled a contested three-pointer.
Missouri wanted Porter Jr. to use his 6-foot-10 frame to post up near the basket and conserve energy while he worked himself back into game shape — but he often positioned himself too far away from the hoop. Once, he struggled to establish position for a post-up, and Kassius Robertson’s attempted entry pass sailed out of bounds.
“It’s hard putting him in the fold where you think he might fit,” Martin said.
With Porter Jr. on the floor, Martin added, “there’s a lot of things that you normally run that you don’t run because he probably doesn’t remember all those plays or know all those plays."
When Porter Jr. was still sitting out earlier this season, he said he would one day come back to being better than 100 percent, and he envisioned that he would only then return to the court. But the Tigers’ season-long attrition — from Blake Harris to Terrence Phillips to Cullen VanLeer — caused Porter Jr. to change his mind.
“If everybody was healthy and nobody had transferred? I mean, it would’ve been a whole different process of elimination in terms of a decision,” Porter Jr. said. “There would have been more thought to it. With Cullen going down (with a torn ACL) … it was a no-brainer, even at 60, 65 percent. I was going to do what I could."
Even 60 percent of Porter Jr. provided flashes of the player a NBA team hopes it will land when it selects him with as a top-10 pick.
Twice on Friday, he grabbed a rebound and drove the length of the floor — first for a layup, then for a foul that led to two free throws to make it a six-point game with just under 10 minutes remaining.
But then he began to feel tired.
He settled for another contested jumper. When he did not have the ball in his hands on offense, he mostly stood in one place.
After one Porter Jr. miss at the rim, he tried to swipe for the ball near halfcourt, but a Seminole put the ball behind his back, and Porter Jr. stumbled away from the action. Florida State scored on that possession, part of a 13-0 Florida State run.
“He made a couple of bone-headed mistakes,” said his younger brother, freshman forward Jontay Porter. “That’s what’s going to happen if you aren’t playing the whole season.”
The star freshman seemed emotionally exhausted after the game. While thinking back to one moment when he stole the ball — a moment that usually would be “two dribbles and a dunk” — he let out a short chuckle, as though he did not know what the proper response was after such a disappointing return.
Porter Jr. said on Thursday, before a Missouri practice, that doctors told him he would only immediately be effective for about 10 or 15 minutes per game. But the Tigers’ circumstances required him to do more, especially with senior forward Jordan Barnett serving a suspension for this game after being arrested for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
Barnett was the Tigers’ best defender this season, and with him out, Porter Jr. had to use more energy chasing men around the perimeter. Missouri had to play Kevin Puryear, a traditional power forward, at Barnett’s small forward spot, which led to lapses in communication.
“We were really missing Jordan Barnett tonight,” said Porter Jr., who knows the blame for this loss will fall on him more than any other Tiger.
He fed into speculation of a return with cryptic social media posts. And he aggravated some fans by not playing for the final three games of the regular season despite being cleared — a decision he said he would not change.
Porter Jr. said he had not made a decision yet about whether to declare for the NBA Draft, and he does not intend to do so for “a little while.” But if his MU career is over, he said he hopes fans remember it as a “good” one in which he gave his best effort.
“I would hope that they would see that, but I didn’t play to probably their expectations,” he said.
“Or my expectations,” Porter Jr. added.
The preseason All-American had not lost consecutive games since before high school. And on Friday, he only had about 15 minutes alone in the locker room to process the experience before he answered questions about what could have gone differently during Missouri's season.
He said he spent those 15 minutes crying.