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4 Thoughts on Mizzou’s thumping of Wagner

Michael Porter Jr. sat our with a nagging leg injury, but his younger brother showed off how well he’s adjusting to the college game.

NCAA Basketball: Wagner at Missouri
Expectations for combo forward Jontay Porter were tempered after he enrolled early and passed his senior year of high school to join Mizzou. Against, Wagner, the freshman showcased the diverse skillset that made him a five-star prospect.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With four minutes left in a 99-55 shellacking of Wagner on Monday, Mizzou’s student section had a pressing demand: Walk-on Adam Wolf ditching his warm-up garb and getting some run.

Near the MU bench, the usually staid and buttoned-up Cuonzo Martin smiled, pointed at Wolf and did more than gently rib the senior. He obliged the crowd’s demand. And three minutes later, Wolf curled up the left wing from the baseline, caught a feed from Terrence Phillips, rose off the floor with no conscience and knocked in a 3-pointer to ignite euphoria deep in garbage time.

Tuesday’s affair accomplished its objective. Mizzou routed an overmatched low-major. It was able to sit Michael Porter Jr., whose nagging leg injury created a notable absence—and near panic—as he watched the game from the locker room. In the process, his younger brother Jontay Porter displayed what made him a five-star recruit in his own right. And, yes, Jeremiah Tilmon again seemed hellbent on fouling out as soon as possible.

1. Jontay is settling in nicely

Skimming the box score won’t tell you about the myriad of ways the freshman combo forward left his imprint on this game. Subbing with a little less than 13 minutes remaining in the first half, he helped turn a modest a 12-point game into a laugher.

  • He scored off an entry play on the block with weaker right hand.
  • A couple of minutes later, he punished a defender who didn’t trail him to the perimeter to set a ball screen for Kassius Robertson. Left alone, Jontay took a pitch back and knocked in a 3-pointer at the top of the key.
  • Three trips later, he snagged a missed 3-pointer that caromed off the rim for a stickback.
  • The next possession, he tracked Roberton’s 3-point misfire deep into the right corner and fired a pass back to the point guard on the wing for a second attempt that splashed home.

Over seven minutes, the Columbia native tallied seven points, grabbed four boards and dished out two assists. And after a breather, he collected a post feed, pounded out dribbles, and whipped a bullet of a bounce pass to Terrence Phillips, who darted down the line on a dive cut to the rim.

Midway through the first half, Porter appeared on pace for a triple-double in just his second career game—and off the bench, no less.

Meanwhile, he played stellar positional defense, rotating over in time to double or wall up against the rare straight-line drive by a Wagner wing. He also led a one-man fast break, stripping forward Nick Madray of the ball and driving the length of the floor for a 10-foot floater midway through the second half.

Entering the season, we expected Jontay to need some time to adapt to the physicality and speed of the game. Sure, Wagner isn’t best measuring stick, but on a night in which Tilmon again found himself in foul trouble, it was heartening to see Jontay step into the breach.

Even better, his performance hinted at what could be in store: savvy pick-and-rolls and ball screens, a polished face-up game, the knack for making the smart pass, innate defensive awareness, and the ability to use his length without fouling.

Anyone who watched MoKan Elite knew what Jontay had stashed in his toolbox. Now Missouri fans have glimpsed just how adept he is at deploying them.

NCAA Basketball: Wagner at Missouri
Missouri guard Kassius Robertson showcased the 3-point stroke fans hoped he’d bring along from Canisius.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

2. Kassius Robertson showed off his 3-point stroke

Over the past week, the chatter around the Canisius transfer was how he’d fare sliding over to point guard. For a moment, the debate wasn’t fixated on how whether he could supply Mizzou the outside shooting threat it’s so apparently lacked over the past three seasons.

On Monday, though, Robertson delivered, scoring 23 points and draining five of eight 3-point attempts. Often, they were the outgrowth of Mizzou’s effortless ability to get whatever look it wanted close to the rim, but Robertson also showcased the ability to hit spot-up attempts, shots taken working off the ball or in situations where he had space on the dribble after a defender went under a screen.

No, Robertson won’t be asked to carry the scoring load every night, but it’s promising to see early signs that the chief asset he was recruited to provide appears to be in place.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Missouri
When is the next time we’ll see Michael Porter Jr. on the floor? It won’t be Thursday at Utah as Missouri holds him out to nurse a back injury.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

3. What is MPJ’s status moving forward?

For about an hour, the entire Missouri beat and the Tigers fanbase saw ominous portent in Michael Porter Jr. not sitting on the bench in street clothes. MU’s sports information staff relayed in the pregame that the face of the program was being held out, but the state of mind among scribes and partisans seemingly verged on paranoia, until...

That seemed to soothe frayed nerves. Then Cuonzo Martin took the dais for his postgame remarks.

To be clear, no one is reporting the specifics of this injury, its severity or how Mizzou’s sports medicine staff is addressing the issue. Speculation doesn’t do any good, but we all know how nature abhors a vacuum.

I’ll just say this: it’s best to be cautious with these injuries. High-ankle sprains, turf toe and back spasms are, in my humble view, the worst kind of affliction. Their status changes from day to day, affecting the amount and quality of work a player can put in. Almost nothing heals them but time, and they can be reaggravated just as quickly. And, in Porter’s case, they can change the dynamic a player brings to the floor by altering how they play.

For a coaching staff, a player who suffers a catastrophic injury like an ACL tear or broken foot can bring clarity. An acute injury is itself a resolution. You can make concrete changes in scheme, personnel, and routines. You can plan to do without. That’s not the case with an injury like Porter’s, where his availability and what he can provide is prone to volatility based on how his back is feeling.

It’s in the fatalist nature of Mizzou fans to assume the worst. But for now, Martin and his staff may be taking a conservative—and hyper-rational—approach with Porter Jr.

NCAA Basketball: Wagner at Missouri
Against Wagner, Mizzou was still too loose with the basketball. Maybe it’s youth, trying to mesh two rosters or adapting to a new system. No matter the cause, Cuonzo Martin’s squad needs to nip it in the bud.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

4. There’s some cleaning up to do in the ball handling department

Given that Missouri’s offense has been a buzzsaw through two games, sporting a gaudy 71.4 effective field goal percentage and 1.06 points per possession, what I’m about to say may seem like nitpicking.

But we have to talk about valuing the basketball.

Right now, Missouri is turning the ball over on roughly 23 percent of its possessions—ranking 279th nationally. So far, they’ve been able to overcome giving away possessions by utterly clamping down defensively, controlling the glass and not putting teams on the foul line. It may not have been tonight, and the day might not arrive on Thursday, but coughing the ball up has consequences. RIght

If we review Bill C’s Study Halls from the Showdown for Relief and the season opener, you’ll see Mizzou’s Ball Control Index hovers well below 2.0—a ratio that we’d consider relatively sound. Against Wagner, Mizzou’s BCI was just 1.56, a reflection of turning the ball over 17 times.

Now, being loose with the ball isn’t uncommon for young teams, and this roster is two disparate groups mashed together and running a system their coach is deploying for the first time. Put simply: It’s a new roster, new scheme, and new chemistry. Over time, merely playing together and fleshing out rotations might curb the number of turnovers.

Still, it’s something to keep an eye moving forward.