Missouri basketball’s recent history is so wretched and its current moment so encouraging that without a shred of 2018 hyperbole we can say this is the program’s best stretch since winning its last Big 12 tournament.
That was back in 2012, which means two coaches ago for Mizzou, two jobs ago for current coach Cuonzo Martin, seventh grade for Michael Porter Jr., and it always comes back to him, doesn’t it?
Mizzou is proving itself to be a dang good team with Porter as a cheerleader. But his return now feels like when and not if, video of him taking jump shots and dunking with his head at the rim stoking anticipation around the sport, and adding one of the nation’s top talents to this mix means a whole new set of possibilities.
Martin is taking the right public stance here. Let ESPN show the video, let Porter post on Instagram, let everyone else do the talking as the freshman awaits a doctor’s appointment in the next week or so. Then, ask Martin if it’s a topic of conversation inside the program.
“Not at all,” he said. “Not for us as a staff. No. If that’s the case, that’s with the doctors and trainers. Until he steps on the floor it’s really not an issue with me.”
Uh-huh. Not an issue he wants to talk about in a press conference, anyway.
Look, there are plenty of reasons to believe in this team, not just that it will make its first NCAA Tournament in five years, but that it will be a real threat once there. Most of those reasons were neatly packaged in Mizzou’s fifth straight win here on Tuesday night — 62-58 over No. 21 Texas A&M.
Martin is building a sneaky case for national coach of the year, already matching the combined win totals of the last two years with 18, despite having his best player for a total of 2 minutes. It is stunning to watch players who a year ago looked over their heads in major-college basketball make real impact on a winning team.
Kassius Robertson came here as a grad transfer, as a spot-up shooter, an afterthought in a busy offseason and now he’s the SEC player of the week two weeks running, the team’s “clear” leader according to Martin, and again in on many of the best moments with a game-high 16 points.
Jeremiah Tilmon played his best game at Mizzou, by far, even on a night he missed eight shots, including at least four he probably should not have taken. Tilmon scored 14 points, with two blocks and no fear, the biggest reason Mizzou held its own against one of the nation’s top frontcourts featuring projected lottery pick Robert Williams and Tyler Davis, the 6-10 center who leads A&M in scoring.
Mizzou has now won five in a row. The last loss will be three weeks old when it plays again, the biggest reason a stubborn, smart, and aggressive defense that’s always been the identity of Martin’s best teams.
Put one way: Mizzou just shot 39 percent, and was outrebounded 46-30, and still beat a team that had won four in a row (including the last two against Kentucky and at Auburn).
Put another way: A&M had scored 80 or more points in each of its last four games, but managed just 58 against Mizzou, mostly because of surgical double teams in the post and enough pressure on guard T.J. Starks (40 points on 29 shots the last two games) to limit him to 6-of-17 shooting and four turnovers.
Mizzou is now 8-5 in a league that is currently projected to have eight NCAA Tournament teams.
So, again: this is a good team even with the nation’s No. 1 recruit cheering from the bench.
But how much different does this look with Porter?
If science and NCAA rules allowed it, Porter is basically what you would create to help the Tigers the rest of this season. Mizzou needs someone who can, in coach-speak, get buckets when the team runs bad offense. As good as Mizzou has been defensively, it’s still uneven with the ball, and Porter would solve a lot of those problems.
Mizzou also needs another ball handler, and not just for late-game inbounds situations. Porter solves that, too. He scores when others can’t, and his mere presence on the floor makes it easier for teammates to score.
If you want to search for problems, he’s never had to defend at this level, or been asked to defend the way Martin will, um ... ask probably isn’t the right word, but we’ll go with that.
These are what we call uptown problems.
Porter’s return, when it happens, changes everything about this team. Changes how the NCAA Tournament selection committee views the Tigers, changes how opposing teams view and game-plan, changes how Martin is able to attack.
It’s been long enough already since Mizzou had a team this good.
But it has never had a team this good, then added one of the nation’s top talents just before the games really start to matter.
Nobody has. There is no precedent, and Mizzou has no precedent for what becomes possible if Porter returns with his full powers.