Ten minutes passed Friday before the question at the top of mind for Mizzou fans was put to Cuonzo Martin.
Will Michael Porter Jr. don a uniform Saturday against Kentucky inside Rupp Arena?
The scowl etched on Martin’s face turned upward, a stern facade cracked by a slight grin.
“Maybe I should say he’s playing and we’ll get (Kentucky) off-balanced,” he said. “I haven’t thought that far into it. Maybe. If it makes him feel good. Yeah, that’s fine if that happens. It could happen. But I haven’t thought about it to that point.”
For now, Martin’s dry wit can disarm doubt.
How long it will work, though, remains an open question. And it’s worth monitoring how Martin and the Tigers grapple with expectations inside and outside Mizzou Arena.
With the likely lottery pick cleared to practice, fans can still nurture a fragile fantasy of Mizzou adding Porter as a late-season catalyst to propel a deep run in March. We can bid farewell to cryptic social media posts. No more clandestine videos of shooting sessions at the campus rec center. Or five-second clips of Porter snatching self-tossed lob off a backboard.
But another question quickly sprouted Friday: When will Porter see meaningful minutes?
Yesterday, Martin looped back time and again to a collaborative and approach in the days ahead: non-contact drills, close watch by medical faculty and a coaching staff carefully monitoring Porter’s reintroduction in an ecosystem’s that flourished in his absence.
“If he’s healthy enough to practice and 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), ‘OK, we’re good? Then we’re good,’” Martin said.
All well and good. But is there a plan to get Porter minutes before postseason play arrives in two weeks?
“No,” Martin said before hitting on the recurring theme of protecting Porter’s health above all else.
With a return at Kentucky unlikely, an optimist would hope steady pregame conditioning work with strength coach Nicodemus Christopher shortened the timetable. But even a few spot minutes on Tuesday at Vanderbilt seems like a reach. And so we come to next Saturday’s season finale against Arkansas.
The scene is easy to imagine. Porter rising from a folding chair, pulling off his shooting shirt and trotting to the scorer’s table as the decibel level rises inside Mizzou Arena. How many minutes he plays and the stat line he assembles is almost irrelevant, too. The simple act of watching Porter move on a basketball court will be a payoff.
And what if Porter doesn’t see action the Razorbacks?
That’s when patience undergoes its first stress test.
Reckoning with the idea might never play is the can Mizzou fans have kicked down the road for a while. And it’s that hope that makes recollections hazy of a time back in November when fatalism and, in some quarters, ire over Porter’s condition permeated the fan base. (Remember some conspiratorial minds who thought MU covered up Porter’s ailment until season tickets were gobbled up?).
No sooner were his L3 and L4 discs repaired than Porter started hinting that the recovery timeline could be chopped down. Yet Martin prudently urged caution. All the while, the Tigers — flawed as they are — galvanized under his guidance, adopting traits inherent to Martin-coached teams: sturdy man-to-man defense and winning the rebounding war. Finally, over the last two weeks, Martin stopped tamping down speculation about Porter’s return.
As earnest as Porter might be in wanting to suit up, there’s still business considerations at play. NBA scouts saw enough of Porter in high school, on the EYBL circuit and Team USA camps that his stock ($) hasn’t been devalued. His skillset is still intriguing enough that most draftniks still think he’ll go off the board before the top-5 selections are done, creating a potential salary floor of $11.4 million, per Real GM.
Yesterday, Sports Illustrated’s Jeremey Woo tackled the obvious thought running through the mind of any rational observer.
It’s far more likely [Porter will] secure desirable draft position by picking his spots in workouts and steering himself to the right franchise. The rule of thumb for prospects is generally that the more teams know about you, the less likely you are to convince them you’re something you’re not. ... Why offer teams anything to pick apart beyond medical records and controlled access?
Often, fans rebut this idea by talking about the presence of Michael Porter Sr. and Jontay Porter on the Mizzou bench. Idyllic as the narrative might be of the Porters uniting for a late-season surge, the implications of a rushed return and the dwindling time left in MU’s season can’t be ignored.
And for Martin, the ramifications of bringing Porter along to soon and a possible reinjury are worth considering, too. If Porter goes down again, hard questions get asked and ammo gets provided to rivals on the recruiting trail.
On Friday, though, Martin didn’t seem inclined to engage in hypotheticals about the implications of injecting Porter back into the mix. Asked about the psychological impact Porter’s return could on an undermanned roster during the season’s home stretch, Martin brushed aside the chance to delve too deeply into the mater.
“It’s a valid question, and I understand everything you’re saying, but that’s life,” he said. There’s nothing you can do about it. It happened. It’s what it is. So we deal with it and move on.
“I try not to make a big deal out of things. It’s what it is. We can only control what we can control. Because he is a part of the team. But that’s why I always go back and say, ‘Don’t read everything.’ If you’re not reading about it, you don’t know about it.”
Martin’s internal mute button might be easy to find, but how what kind of content filter do his players own? Because it’s evident speculation of the Tigers’ demise after Porter’s surgery made it through.
“The outside noise kind of pissed us off a little bit,” junior forward Kevin Puryear said. “The fact that people thought our season was over with after he got hurt. That kind of upset us. We know what we have in that locker room.”
Sitting next to Puryear, senior wing Jordan Barnett didn’t miss a chance to chime in.
”As soon as he went down,” Barnett added, “we really had something to prove.”
So they did. As of today, MU’s assembled an NCAA tournament profile sturdy enough to withstand a bad loss Tuesday to Ole Miss. If anything, the Tigers’ resiliency pried the door open long enough for Porter to waltz back through and — ideally — in time to leave the kind of impact he craves.
Along the way, though, Porter’s absence created opportunities for others we assumed would be supporting characters. Kassius Robertson went from spot-up shooter to a potential All-SEC selection. Jontay Porter’s face-up ability and floor vision out of the mid-post got their due. Jeremiah Tilmon’s development — frustrating and foul-prone as it might be — may have been sped along.
How many programs could withstand losing a player of Porter’s caliber, three point guards and still pilot an eight-man rotation toward a respectable No. 7 seed?
“I think if you look around the country and any team that you take off a component of that magnitude away from that team, you’ve got a different landscape,” Martin said. “Our guys have stepped up, and what they’ve done up to this point is really impressive. Just to be able to deal with the outside noise of, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t be that.’”
Without a doubt, Mizzou is better with Porter available, but what if the process drags itself out? Back in November, players admitted that having Porter in limbo affected their mindset. Perhaps the past three months have calloused their psyches, but a similar situation may be set to unfold.
This week, Martin and his players navigated questions deftly. Under the klieg lights and in the open locker rooms of the SEC tournament, evasion tactics get trickier. And the volume will only grow if the Tigers are slotted in the bracket on Selection Sunday.
And already Martin is testing his ability to change the subject.
“Anyone have questions about Kentucky?” he said.