When it was announced in November that Missouri freshman phenom Michael Porter Jr. would miss the rest of the season with a back injury, just about everyone ruled the Tigers out. Making the NCAA Tournament seemed like a pipe dream, remaining competitive in the SEC was laughable, and even finishing above .500 was questionable.
Three months later, Missouri (19-10, 8-7 SEC) is in a six-way tie for third place in the SEC, a projected 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and has three wins over ranked opponents under its belt.
Instead of believing in the outside noise and doubt, Mizzou turned it into motivation. “The outside noise really kind of pissed us off a little bit,” Kevin Puryear said. “The fact that people thought our season was over with after he got hurt. I think that really upset us.
“It’s really more to prove everybody wrong. We know what we have in our locker room. We know what we’re capable of doing. It wasn’t surprising for us at all to go out there and play like we’ve been playing.”
“You have to have that in you, anyway,” Cuonzo Martin said when asked if he instilled team’s competitive spirit. “You play with a chip on your shoulder if people perceive that you can’t get something done.”
The Tigers shattered expectations, but now they may have a huge addition to the active roster.
CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein reported on Thursday that Porter had been fully cleared for all basketball activities. Porter flew to Dallas on Thursday for a doctor’s visit, but no official statement was given by Missouri at the time.
On Friday, Mizzou made it official. “He will get implemented in practice today,” Martin said. “We’ll just go one day at a time, I don’t really have a timetable after that.”
“The most important thing is to get healthy,” he said. “If he’s healthy enough to practice — go through it, bang up and down, run the floor, block out, fall down, take a charge, all those things — then I’ll decide between the doctors, trainers, [strength coach] Nicodemus [Christopher], and say, ‘Okay, we good? Then, we good.’”
The Tigers will travel to Lexington on Friday evening for its Saturday showdown with Kentucky (7:15 p.m. CT, ESPN). The Wildcats are a part of the aforementioned tie for third place, making this game enormous for both teams.
In the teams’ last meeting, Missouri defeated then-No. 21 Kentucky for the first time in program history. Mizzou put forth one of its strongest defensive performances of the year, holding the Wildcats to just 31 percent shooting and limiting Kevin Knox to five points*.
During the Wildcats’ two-game winning streak, Jarred Vanderbilt had two 11-point, nine-rebound performances. Against Arkansas, he grabbed six offensive rebounds.
“He’s a workhorse,” Martin said. “He’s a skilled guy, but when he rebounds the ball he reminds me a lot of Dennis Rodman. For him to be 19 years old with that frame, and that size, that athleticism, that quickness, that fight, and that desire, it’s really hard to keep a guy like that off the glass.”
Cuonzo Martin answers just about every possible MPJ question there is.Posted by Rock M Nation on Friday, February 23, 2018
Despite coming away with the win, the Tigers were out-rebounded by Kentucky, 40-36, and allowed 20 offensive boards.
“To beat them at their place, we definitely have to be much better rebounding,” Jordan Barnett said. “We have to limit their second-chance points and take control of the ball because they’ll have that much more energy from being in their home arena.”
Kevin Puryear reveals that the Missouri team was “pissed off” when people wrote them off after MPJ’s injury. Porter Jr. was fully cleared for all basketball activities by his doctor in Dallas yesterday.Posted by Rock M Nation on Friday, February 23, 2018
As for Michael Porter Jr., it isn’t clear whether he’ll suit up against the Wildcats. “I hadn’t even thought about it. Maybe I should say he playing,” Martin joked. “That would get ‘em off balance.”
“He’s a competitive player,” Martin added. “So if you say play tomorrow, he’s playing tomorrow. That’s just his nature, that’s one of the gifts that he has. But it’s bigger than just him [saying], ‘I want to play.’ He has to be healthy enough to play in my opinion.”
* Speaking of Knox, players from more than 20 programs were identified as possibly breaking NCAA rules Friday morning. In documents released by Yahoo! Sports from the federal investigation, Knox was named as one of the 25 players who received impermissible benefits. His playing status for tomorrow is unclear. Losing Knox would be huge for Kentucky, as he’s leading the team with 15.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game this season.