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Michael Porter Jr. joining Missouri is not like Ben Simmons joining LSU

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With Michael Porter Jr. headed to Missouri, some think he is making a mistake joining a struggling program.

2017 McDonald's All American Game Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

The other day, someone pointed me in the direction of an interview on 810 in Kansas City between Steven St. John, Nate Bukaty, and The Sporting News’ Mike Decourcy. I usually go out of my way to avoid Decourcy but decided to listen against my better judgement. He didn’t disappoint.

DeCourcy raved about Michael Porter Jr.’s ability and, before the host could ask a follow-up question, proceeded to say:

I’m not sure what it leads to though. I’m don’t know whether there will be enough around him for it to make a huge difference. And then he’ll leave, and then I know there have been conversations this week, maybe it’s not going to just be one year. But that player has never stayed two years. [...]

I just want people to be realistic. It’s going to be nice to have a player like that, but what does it lead to? Does it build your program? I think that’s the question I have and have concern about what they’re doing there.

What I’m concerned about is Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith. You put that guy on an island, and it doesn’t go well, and then your reputation is damaged. I mean, Johnny Jones is gone, Lorenzo Romar is gone, Mark Gottfried ... GONE! I mean, that’s obviously not going to happen to Cuonzo, but putting that player on an island without sufficient help damages your reputation as a program. And I just gave you three iron-clad examples.

Three. Iron clad. Examples.

So, forgetting for a minute that Missouri has been a program in awful shape for the last three years, and the jolt of getting the number one player might galvanize a fan base a little bit ... or that MPJ called Columbia, Missouri, home for six or seven years, so playing at home for his one year of college might be appealing ... let’s look at these iron -clad examples of how a one-and-done player messed up the reputation of a program.

How Ben Simmons ruined the reputation of the LSU program

Well, he didn’t.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Louisiana State vs Tennessee Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to sit here and tell you how bad of a basketball coach Johnny Jones is or was. We know he’s not a great basketball coach. He underachieved with some very talented rosters, which is what got him fired. Jones wasn’t fired because of Ben Simmons, Jones was fired because he couldn’t win enough with elite talent.

With two NBA draft picks in Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey and a host of other talented players, LSU squeaked into the NCAA Tournament as a 9-seed the year before Simmons arrived. Most of those guys returned the next year and joined Simmons on the roster along, with 5-star guard Antonio Blakeney.

The reality of the 2016 LSU Tigers is actually much different than the perception. Sure, they missed the NCAA Tournament, which hadn’t really happened with a top overall draft pick before. They still won 19 games, and if you consider everything that went into that season, that really wasn’t that bad.

The Tigers struggled with any sort of interior presence early in the season, until Arizona transfer Craig Victor became eligible, and suddenly there was somebody to finish off Ben Simmons dishes down low. With Victor in the lineup they went 15-10.

They also struggled shooting the ball from outside until Keith Hornsby was healthy. With Hornsby healthy and in the lineup the Tigers went 12-7.

Without Hornsby and Victor, LSU didn’t have anyone to play off the ball. The Tigers’ roster was a little bit of a mess because they had a collection of great players who all did the same thing. Simmons, Blakeney, Josh Gray, Tim Quarterman and Brandon Sampson were all guys who needed the ball in their hands to create. It wasn’t until Hornsby and Victor were added that any of those players had someone to receive the ball on a drive (with the hope of knocking down the shot anyway).

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

So many ball dominant players were rendered inefficient when being forced off the ball by each other. Yet this team went 9-4 in SEC with both Victor and Hornsby playing, including wins over Kentucky, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Their losses during that stretch included Florida, A&M, South Carolina and Oklahoma. I mean, that’s really not that bad.

You need players around the top player who can complement him. When LSU had those players with Simmons, they were pretty good — a certain NCAA team. When those players were injured or waiting on eligibility, LSU struggled.

Still, winning 19 games with Johnny Jones as your coach is pretty good.

Sometimes missing the tournament for 6 straight years gets you fired

Markelle Fultz didn’t get Lorenzo Romar fired. Losing did.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at Washington
Markelle Fultz
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Romar started pretty well at Washington, making the tournament six times in his first nine seasons.

If you remove his first season (where they were 129th), his average KenPom rating was 35th in that span. That seems about right for Washington, a solid program but not one accustomed to super-high highs.

His average KenPom rating since then is 97th. For eight years UW was one of the best 40 programs in the country, making the tournament two out of every three years. Since then they’ve barely been in the discussion.

Two years ago, UW rebounded just a bit, going 19-15 with a roster of mostly freshmen. Led by Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss, Romar probably figured adding Markelle Fultz to his roster, along with two other solid sophomores David Crisp and Noah Dickerson, would be enough to buoy his team into the NCAA tournament. But then Chriss and Murray declared for the draft, as both were projected as first-round picks, and Romar was again left with a depleted roster.

Surrounding his star recruit would be a shallow front court and one solid role player at guard.

Decourcy was technically right in that the one-and-done player wasn’t enough to give UW a bounce, but he skips the fact Fultz hopped onto a sinking ship at the wrong time. Romar was going down and had been going down for years due to his inability to build a sustainable roster.

Mark Gottfried created a mess at NC State

Gottfried was fired midway through the season at NC State this year because his team was awful. After starting 11-2, the Wolfpack went 4-15 down the stretch in a tough league.

North Carolina State is known for being a fairly tough place to win — it’s a program which has historically eaten up a lot of coaches over the years as they try to compete with Duke and North Carolina in-state, and with the ACC at large annually.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Since Jim Valvano won the national championship in 1982, NC State has been to the NCAA tournament 16 times; in 35 years, they’ve made the tourney less than half the time.

Gottfried started out strong, making the tournament his first four seasons. Things were looking good. He had talented teams who won enough to be on the bubble each year, and each year they did enough to get in. Two years ago, things didn’t go as well, as the Wolfpack limped to a 15-16 record, including 5-13 in the league.

As the pressure was mounting, Gottfried pieced together a roster around his superstar freshman, Dennis Smith Jr. He landed elite Turkish forward Omer Yurtseven and had Malik-Abdul Abu and Maverick Rowan as good pieces to surround Smith.

Everything sort of imploded once the Pack hit conference play, as they went from the No. 57 team in KenPom to No. 104, largely based upon a defensive effort which resulted in the No. 229 defense. Talk about yikes.

Why Mike DeCourcy is wrong

Cuonzo Martin isn’t asking his new star to save his job the way Romar, Jones, and Gottfried did. The expectation for Porter at Mizzou is to bring excitement back to the program that had sunk to its lowest level in modern history. Porter has already succeeded in getting people to purchase season tickets and generating the most excitement we’ve seen since the 2012 season.

We don’t know what the end game is going to be, or where the roster will stand at the start of the season. Where things stand now, there isn’t an expectation for Mizzou to contend for a national or conference title. Martin and Porter are just trying to make Mizzou competitive again.

Where Mizzou’s roster stood at the end of last year, there wasn’t enough talent on the team for the addition of MPJ to make a huge difference. Simply having a great scorer like MPJ on the floor would have won Mizzou more games last season, but it wouldn’t have made the Tigers a tournament team.

With normal growth and player development it’s possible the NIT would have been an achievable goal with the additions of C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris. But that’s strictly as things stand now.

High School Basketball: 40th Annual McDonald's All-American Games Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve seen Porter Jr already paying dividends by getting another top-10 player in Kevin Knox to visit Columbia. Plus, Blake Harris, a 4-star point guard, committed yesterday. And then there’s Jeremiah Tilmon, who many believe is a virtual lock to end up at Mizzou after asking out of his National Letter of Intent with Illinois last week.

Adding an elite shot blocker and rebounder in Tilman to an experienced roster, along with Roberts, Harris and MPJ, now creates a team that might be able to reach the NCAAs. If Knox comes on board, the NCAA Tournament becomes the outright expectation.

This is an exciting time to be a Missouri basketball fan. Cuonzo Martin and Michael Porter Jr. have ignited the passion again. So here’s “what it leads to”: excitement and a pathway toward making Mizzou basketball relevant again.

Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. all joined coaches and programs on their way down. Michael Porter Jr. is doing the opposite. The only direction Mizzou has to go is up, he’ll largely be viewed as the game-changing recruit who helped Cuonzo Martin kick start a rebuild in a place Porter called home.