For months, the question of whether 5-star freshman Michael Porter Jr. would be able to return to the basketball court has been, without a close second, the most hotly debated topic among Missouri fans.
Despite an initial diagnosis that claimed Porter’s back surgery “likely” would cost him the season, rumors quickly swirled that that timetable was a bit pessimistic — rumors fueled by Porter himself. But still, for much of this season, Missouri fans had little more to go on than optimism — not the easiest thing for that fan base — and message board postings from people who claimed to know a guy who had Porter’s surgery and it was, like, not as big a deal as everyone was making it out to be, man.
The last few weeks of the Porter saga, however, have steered away from outright speculation and something closer to actual information. After ESPN’s Dick Vitale talked about Porter dunking prior to the Tigers’ game at Ole Miss in early February, there’s been an avalanche of information suggesting Porter’s return is actually imminent, rather than the far-off hope Missouri fans have clinged to for most of the season.
On Friday, that culminated in coach Cuonzo Martin’s meeting with the media, in which Martin stated that Porter will meet on Thursday in Dallas with the doctor who performed his surgery, ostensibly to get cleared to return to practice with the team. That likely would rule out the Tigers’ trip to Kentucky for Porter’s official return, but assuming he does get the go-ahead, perhaps we could see him on the court Feb. 27 at Vanderbilt, or, conservatively, in the Tigers’ final regular-season game, against Arkansas at home on March 3.
As Porter has dominated the headlines, his teammates have continued to take care of business on the court. Heading into the team’s matchup Saturday at LSU, Missouri is riding a five-game win streak and could end the day in a three-way tie for second in the SEC with Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. The Tigers own the tiebreakers against the Crimson Tide and Volunteers.
Even if Porter had been on the court all season, Tigers fans surely would have been happy with an 18-8 (8-5 SEC) record at this point. But without him? It’s safe to say Missouri has exceeded all expectations.
So, instead of Porter riding in like a white knight to save the day for a struggling squad, Martin and his staff may face the challenge of integrating the 5-star freshman into a team that is rolling, with limited time to get the team to jell before tournament play begins. It is a good problem to have, no doubt — let’s dispel the “Would Porter Jr. even make this team better?” notion here and now. Yes, yes he would — but it’s unquestionably a unique situation.
In Porter’s stead, just about every player on the roster has assumed an increased role that would not have been there had Porter been healthy all season (and had Missouri not lost two point guards to transfer and another to suspension). Without Porter, grad transfer Kassius Robertson has stepped into the role of go-to scorer far better than anyone could have expected. Jordan Barnett has been maddeningly inconsistent at times but has turned in a stellar senior season overall. Freshmen Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon have seemingly gotten past the freshman wall to give the Tigers an interior presence they haven’t had in a long time.
All told, Martin has squeezed every ounce of production out of a roster that had hardly played together coming into the season. And while that has bolstered his SEC Coach of the Year candidacy, there is still probably a hard limit on how far this team can go without Porter, who doesn’t necessarily remove said limit but raises the ceiling substantially.
What that ceiling is is impossible to know, of course, but a deep NCAA Tournament run is not out of the question with Porter on the floor, provided he can mesh quickly with teammates. For much of the season, the Tigers have struggled most notably in two areas: turnovers, particularly against trapping and ball pressure, and late-clock shot-making. Porter especially excels at the latter, but with a good handle for a guy his size, he also can help in the former, if for no reason other than the fact that he gives the Tigers a good target to inbound the ball to, something they have struggled with lately late in games.
Expecting Porter’s reintroduction to be completely seamless is not realistic, however. For one, his conditioning is unlikely to be at its peak in those first few games, meaning Missouri cannot immediately count on him to deliver 35-plus minutes a night such as Robertson and Barnett have. And then there’s the question of whether the Tigers, and Porter in particular, will continue to share the ball as well as they have in recent months, or whether the offense will devolve into watching Porter go 1-on-1 at the top of the key as everyone else stands around, as often seemed to happen in the team’s preseason exhibition against Kansas.
Still, the prospect of Missouri entering the NCAA Tournament with Porter having played in four or five games has to leave Tigers fans drooling. With Porter, Missouri’s offense has the potential to transform from a grinding, albeit efficient affair, into an NBA-style clinic of floor spacing and high pick-and-rolls.
Tilmon providing a high ball screen for Porter as Robertson, Barnett and Jontay Porter spread the floor could prove lethal against defenses unequipped to play against that combination of shooting and athleticism, while simultaneously providing a ton of length to disrupt offenses on the other end of the court. And if the Tigers find themselves late in the clock without time to set up a play? Well, go do your thing, Mike. That’s a luxury few teams enjoy, and it can be especially valuable in March when rotations shorten and the intensity ramps up.
The ceiling for this Missouri team is probably somewhere on the 4- or 5-seed line, while the (realistic) floor is probably a 10-seed. Regardless of where Missouri is slotted, with Porter back in the lineup, it would be a team nobody wants to play, even if it’s just the thought of what the Tigers could be instilling nervousness into their opponents.
First, though, Porter needs the go-ahead from his doctor. Until then, the Tigers will remain a good but flawed team. If he gets clearance, however? Well, then everything Missouri fans hoped this season could be back on the table.