With the ultimate signature on Missouri’s basketball revival season in the balance, the once-preposterous fantasy of the Tigers being bolstered by Michael Porter Jr.’s return became distinctly more tangible on Friday when the nation’s No. 1 recruit resumed practice.
Now, speculation is legitimately swirling about when Porter could actually play months after the back surgery that seemed to snuff out what is widely expected to be his only season at MU.
Enough so that it was tempting to analyze every sign and parse every word, starting with coach Cuonzo Martin’s first terms updating the matter.
“He will start,” Martin said, inadvertently pausing long enough to let the impossible hover for a second before adding, “He will get implemented in practice today, and we’ll just go one day at a time.”
If Porter’s return indeed does come to fruition, and there’s still reason to wonder if it can, it will make for an amazing twist in a story that initially seemed to fit the woebegone narrative of a cursed MU athletic program:
No need to pick the scabs; Mizzou fans know all the tortured prologues to that.
And the season to date is testimony to exactly the opposite of that mindset — which is at the heart of what bodes well now.
While MU remains an incomplete team that has to be at its best to succeed, it’s also a team capable of winning five in a row in league play, as it recently did, and beating ranked teams, as it has done.
And that’s why the possible return of Porter looms so meaningfully.
The overlooked others weren’t going to be defined by his absence. Put another way, the Tigers became better individually and collectively without him — and to some degree precisely because he wasn’t there.
So this could be a more capable team overall with his return than it would otherwise have been.
If the group whose core became three newcomers and five holdovers from last year’s 8-24 debacle hadn’t bristled at the loss of MPJ, if Martin hadn’t done a masterful job of galvanizing them when many assumed the season dead, Porter’s potential comeback would be an intriguing novelty act but likely largely irrelevant in the bigger picture.
Consider that Porter almost certainly won’t play Saturday at Kentucky and would seem highly doubtful even Tuesday at Vanderbilt. At least that’s how it seems given the way Martin portrayed the urgency in making certain he’s healthy and his intention to start Porter in non-contact drills and then see how he responds to bumping and grinding in practice.
So, maybe there’s a chance he’ll be ready to really play for the first time in MU’s home finale next Saturday against Arkansas. Or perhaps not until the Southeastern Conference Tournament days later. And, of course, maybe not at all.
But because the team’s credentials (18-10 overall and in a six-way tie for third place in the SEC at 8-7) give it a compelling NCAA Tournament profile, the season figures to be extended long enough to give Porter more of a chance to play and a better chance to have a substantial impact.
That’s been hard-earned by a group that could have sulked or drooped out of contention, as many thought it would, but didn’t have time for the self-pity.
In fact, it was ignited by the perception that this season was all about Porter and formed its own identity by moving on.
Even though junior Kevin Puryear acknowledged on Friday that the only person in the preseason “dominating every single day in practice was Michael,” Puryear and senior Jordan Barnett seemed to seethe anew at the presumption of MU’s demise at the time of Porter’s injury.
“That kind of really upset us … We’re not going to deny it,” Puryear said. “Of course, Michael is who he is, and he’s a great teammate. He’s a great teammate. He’s a great player.
“But even he would tell you that we have a talented group of guys as well. (And we) went out there and took care of business.”
Said Barnett: “This is a team that went 8-24 last year and had even more rough years before that, so regardless we had something to prove. And the fact that he went down and everybody counted us out right away (ticked) us off even more. That just added fuel to the fire.”
So in his wake, others emerged in ways they might not have with Porter the presumptive offensive mainstay.
For instance, transfer Kassius Robertson could well have been less of an offensive force than the one who is now a first-team All-SEC candidate. And maybe as a team MU wouldn’t have taken defense to heart quite the same way it did and learned — by achievements and costly lapses in that part of the game — that that sort of grit has to be a given for it to win.
None of which is to suggest Mizzou wouldn’t have been better off with Porter all along.
But it learned to rely on far more than the anticipated superstar, and because of that it shouldn’t become overly dependent mentally or physically on his presence if he returns.
“I think (Porter’s absence) helped everybody,” Martin said. “I think it helped guys continue to go grow, to get better.”
They learned, he added, that they are good enough without him, learned more about controlling what you can control and making the best of any situation.
“In order to be a champion, your day-to-day life has to be built to be a champion,” Martin said. “You don’t become that when you get there; you became that along the way.”
MU hasn’t won anything resembling a championship, of course, and it’s a team that may or may not put a resounding punctuation mark on the season with or without Porter.
But Martin, who isn’t prone to lavish praise, acknowledges what they’ve done to date “is really impressive.”
Because of that, Porter’s prospective return has weight that it wouldn’t otherwise have.
“To have him on the floor would be a huge asset to our team,” Puryear said. “I mean, everybody in this room knows what he brings to the table.
“So that would be a good asset to have, especially going into March and stuff like that.”