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Tigers ride Jontay Porter’s rediscovered touch to an easy road victory

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Despite another game of watching early opposing 3s go in, Mizzou stayed the course and whipped Vandy in the second half.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

One more win.

Let’s start there, folks.

We have plenty to talk about in the wake of Missouri snapping a three-game losing skid on Tuesday with a 74-66 victory over Vanderbilt. Jontay Porter? Oh, rest assured he’ll come up. Jordan Barnett? Yeah, him, too. Clamping down defensively? Absolutely. Curbing turnovers? Ditto. Will we see Michael Porter Jr.? Well, I don’t have all the answers.

First, though, exhale.

With their NCAA tournament chances wobbling, the Tigers waltzed out of Nashville likely needing just one more victory — either on Saturday against Arkansas or next week in the SEC tournament — to absolutely lock up a bid. Needing to mitigate the risk of slipping into the mid-50s of the RPI with a loss and owning a third loss to a sub-100 foe, the Tigers took care of business.

That’s what NCAA tournament teams do this time of year.

By now, we know that when all seems dire, and turbulence is jostling this team, it manages to latch onto the controls and stabilize. The Tigers did it in November when Michael Porter Jr. exited. They did it after C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris decamped mid-season for new homes. They did it again in late January, when another three-game spell appeared to knock them off course.

Flawed? Indeed. But Cuonzo Martin’s persona — defend, rebound and exude mental toughness — has suffused his first team in Columbia.

When Mizzou’s season ends, it’ll probably be amid a slew of turnovers and late-game shooting woes. Griping will go hand-in-hand with mourning and laments over what could have been if Porter had been in the fold.

For now, though, let’s step back and appreciate what we just witnessed. For the first time in at least five years, Mizzou came through in a game it needed to win. On the road, no less.

To the box we go!

Zone Jontay? Sure, put Jontay in the zone

I rarely talk to my TV.

With 6:45 left in the second half, I yelled at Bryce Drew. Why would you do that? Vanderbilt’s coach, in hopes of stanching what was then a 15-4 run, dialed up a 2-3 zone defense. Calmly, Jontay Porter trotted from the baseline to the left elbow, snagged a soft feed from Jordan Geist, pivoted and was confronted by...nobody. The freshman rose and lofted home a mid-range jumper.

And for nearly three minutes, the freshman got just about anything he wanted in a stretch that extended MU’s lead to 15 points and was the crescendo of career-high 24 points paired with seven rebounds, six assists, a block and a steal.

By going zone, Drew essentially handed over control of the mid-post to Porter, whose at his best when he faces up and decides whether to shoot, drive left or pass the ball out.

After burying his first jumper, Mizzou ran the same action a minute later. Again, calling Vandy’s resistance passive undersells how much space and time Porter had to drill a mid-range shot. On the next possession, Porter punished Vandy on a drag screen by drilling a 3-pointer. But it took Porter dive-bombing down a vacant lane and mashing down a wing feed from Kevin Puryear to snap Drew out of the fit of insanity that gripped him and the Commodores trailing 64-59 with 4:10 left to play.

Porter, though, had been a handful before that span, too.

It’s little secret Mizzou typically opens games and the second half by playing through the post. On Tuesday, those plays unfolded on the right block, and usually after a ball reversal and a defense rotating. With Porter operating in the low post, Mizzou stations a shooter on the opposite wing who relocates as the freshman goes to work. The hope: a helpside defender over-rotates past the mid-line and Porter — a savvy passer — whips a kick out for an easy spot up.

Vanderbilt, though, compounded the issue by sending late double teams Porter’s way, making a scrambling close out impossible. Early on, Jordan Barnett slumped and thumped a couple of wide-open looks off the rim. But just before Porter started carving up Vandy’s zone, the senior wing canned two 3-pointers off those looks. And a similar set up allowed Puryear to dive cut down the lane for an easy layup for a 44-40 lead and ignite a 22-9 stretch over roughly eight minutes.

At times this season, Porter has run hot and cold — a normal occurrence for a kid who would otherwise be destroying souls in the Class 3, District 9 tournament for Father Tolton High School. What we saw on Tuesday, though, was the full display of his prodigious gifts. Naturally, Jontay’s older brother has consumed most of the oxygen this season, but the younger Porter may have more long-term impact.

Porter can play out of the mid-post, stroke deep jumpers in roll-and-replace actions, finish with either hand on the block, find all manner shooters and cutters on pass outs and put the ball on the deck. And he’s still maturing into his body, improving his conditioning and waiting for the game to truly slow down. Imagine the height of his powers next season.

If he’s around that long.

Wonder how many of those scouts will report back to home base with a fresh assessment of Mizzou’s other Porter.

Mizzou didn’t sew up a bid, but it’s closer

The Tigers’ stock ticked up just a smidge overnight.

Early Wednesday morning, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm posted his now daily mock bracket, and the Tigers’ win didn’t move off the 10-seed line. Meanwhile, Joe Lunardi placed the Tigers on the 9-seed line. Over at Haslam Metrics, the Tigers bumped up to a No. 10 seed from a No. 11 seed and a play-in game. The NCAA is slow posting updates to its RPI, but Warren Nolan’s index, which is a good proxy, saw the Tigers improve three spots to No. 40.

If MU wanted to truly ease doubts, a win on Saturday over Arkansas or next week in the SEC tournament would probably be enough. Keep an eye out, too, on the Razorbacks’ RPI, with Tuesday’s win against Auburn likely moving them into the top 30. The implications: Mizzou could add a seventh win over a Quadrant 1 opponent to its credentials. According to RPI Wizard, a victory would also lift the Tigers to 37th in the RPI and pair it with the nation’s No. 30 strength of schedule, top-line numbers that likely push the Tigers into the field of 68.

Quick Hitters

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
  • Hello, Mr. Barnett: Throughout the year, we’ve chided the senior for disappearing in the second half of critical games. On Tuesday, though, he helped carry the Tigers through, tallying all 17 of his points on 5-for-7 shooting over the final 17:39 of action. And MU needed all he could provide on a night where Kassius Robertson’s production dipped.
  • Value the ball. Win: Turnover percentage is a good leading indicator Missouri. The guide post is whether the Tigers are above or below 20 percent. In the first half, it was a ghastly 28.6 percent, with five of the Tigers turnovers coming on errant passes. After the break? Mizzou gave the ball away just four times — 12.1 percent of possessions — in the second half and racked up a gaudy 66.7 assist percentage.
  • Geist Hive: Porter and Barnett will get the pub, but Jordan Geists seven points and five assists, including a pair that helped Jontay torch Vandy’s zone were essential in a tilt where Robertson couldn’t create offense out of high pick-and-rolls.
  • Vandy was a sieve: When Missouri finally started taking care of the ball, they generated just about any look they wanted in the half court. The Tigers shot 57.8 percent from the floor, their best outing since routing Wagner back in November. I also split out some other metrics below. The Tigers’ shooting numbers were scalding, and they posted their third-highest PPS of the season and the highest number in SEC play.
  • Obligatory MPJ Update: At this point, you’d think the decision rests in Porter’s camp. And as I wrote last week, the question of when (or if) Porter will play is only going to linger and grow in volume. It’s only been six days and fans want resolution. And Martin increasingly sounds like a man chafing at running cover for his star.