Vahe Gregorian

Déjà vu all over again: Resilient Mizzou loses a Porter but finds itself

Missouri men’s basketball coach, whose team has won six straight, after beating Morehead St.

Mizzou men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin speaks about MU’s 75-61 victory over Morehead State.
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Mizzou men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin speaks about MU’s 75-61 victory over Morehead State.

When Jontay Porter suffered a torn ACL and MCL during a so-called “secret scrimmage” at Southern Illinois-Carbondale in October and was lost for the season, the cruel twist provided yet more fodder for a fan base whose paranoia justifiably runs deep.

That mentality prevailed well before the development last year that this virtually paralleled: older brother Michael Porter Jr., the would-be redeemer of the program, crumpling with a back injury minutes into the opener that sidelined him almost all season and figured to sabotage MU’s hopes.

Fans, of course, can’t help but see patterns in such devastating matters as abruptly losing your best player. Which Jontay Porter no doubt would have been this season as a candidate to lead the Tigers in smarts, scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and maybe even assists and steals.

Coaches, though, haven’t got time for the pain. And so at least so far this season, Mizzou is once more a prime example of what doesn’t destroy you potentially making you stronger — at least mentally.

Not that MU is numb to what’s been lost. But first and foremost, as MU’s Cuonzo Martin puts it, if this is the worst thing that ever happens to Jontay Porter, he’s going to have “a tremendous life.”

Then there’s the here and now for his program. Jolted as Martin might have been in abruptly losing another Porter, acknowledging “I’m not sure how many teams just flow easy without that type of production,” he was never going to show that to his players.

Any coach “sobbing around,” as he said Saturday, would be sending a terrible message to his team.

“ ‘What do you think about us, Coach?’ ” he said, laughing, as he stood in a Mizzou Arena hallway after MU beat Morehead State 75-61 to win its sixth straight game and improve to 9-3 entering Southeastern Conference play.

Instead, this is what he coolly conveys:

“You find ways to make adjustments, you deal with it, you move on,” said Martin, in his second season at MU. “This is life. Stuff happens in life.”

As a cancer survivor who grew up in rugged East St. Louis and carved out a strong career at Purdue despite terrible knee problems, Martin has both conviction and currency on this point.

All the more so because the nucleus of this team grew through that baptism last season, when MU returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 after many assumed all was lost.

Considering the way it all unfolded a year ago, Martin sees the link to what’s happening now.

Amid the fan panic over MPJ’s injury, Martin’s greatest concern wasn’t just melding together new players with returning veterans but also that veterans hadn’t experienced success at MU and could be prone to “here we go again.”

But with Martin casually calling for next man up, the Tigers fended off any inclination to mope with a 10-3 start as others emerged, including Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett and, well, Jontay Porter.

“A lot of things factored into guys staying hungry,” Martin said.

The same sorts of things that seem to be factoring in this time around, too, on a team whose leading scorers are the new-and-improved, more-chip/more-shoulder Jordan Geist and Illinois transfer Mark Smith.

With Smith racking up a career-high 22 points, the guards combined for 42 against Morehead State (4-9) in what will be MU’s only game in a 17-day stretch before the Tigers play host to Tennessee in the SEC opener on Jan. 8. Senior Kevin Puryear (Blue Springs) added 12 points and eight rebounds on Saturday.

Against a clearly overmatched foe, one of the few MU has faced, it’s hard to point to any specific takeaways from the day other than Martin inserting versatile sophomore guard K.J. Santos into the mix with 20 minutes of playing time after Santos had played just 12 minutes all season while dealing with a foot injury.

Martin wants to see the 6-foot-8 Santos be more aggressive offensively but figures that will come and reckons he can be a key defender.

But the game that was unnecessarily close in the second half still offered a microcosm of Mizzou’s season. MU barely out-rebounded (35-33) an Ohio Valley Conference team that featured no one over 6-7 as MU sophomore forward Jeremiah Tilmon seemed to lapse into the issue that’s held him back by fouling out in only 12 minutes of play.

Tilmon can be special, as he has flashed with four double-doubles this season, including 23 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Xavier and 16 and 12 in the victory over Illinois. But as of Saturday, when he managed just two rebounds and four points against four turnovers, he’s fouled out as many times as he’s put up those double-doubles.

Afterward, Martin said he believes Tilmon remains on the right trajectory and that he considered this a blip. Just the same, magnified by the loss of Porter, the Tilmon factor is at the crux of MU’s potential this season. The team also is seeking more offensive flow as Martin weaves in new players.

If we’ve learned anything from the last two seasons under Martin, though, let’s not borrow trouble just yet.

No one knows where this season will go. But it’s reasonable to consider that a coach who is 215-137 overall and 29-16 at a school that won a total of 27 games in the previous three seasons (four if you accept that all the wins in 2013-2014 were later vacated due to an NCAA infractions case) has the personal resolve and talent around him to wring the most out of what he has.

“I’m happy to be 9-3; we could easily be 3-9 (after losing Porter),” he said. “Not to say I thought we would be bad.”

Plenty of others could linger on that; Martin could only say “it’s time to go” and move forward — again. Stuff happens in life.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.