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Missouri’s tournament run needs to start with Jontay Porter

Michael Porter Jr. raises Mizzou’s ceiling, but the Tigers won’t move past Friday without Jontay.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Once the dust settles on Missouri’s 2017-2018 season, I think one of the great memories we’ll all share is getting to watch Jontay Porter develop right before our eyes.

The narrative was written in stone long before Jontay reclassified to join the team back in July. Jontay would serve as the Robin to Michael Jr.’s Batman, a 5-star role player that would adjust to the college game, only taking the reins after his brother left for the NBA’s greener pastures. And it was a narrative quickly shattered once Michael’s back thrust the younger Porter into a bigger role than originally planned.

To anyone who’s watched all year, it’s been fairly obvious Jontay needed time to fully grasp a starring role. The flashes of brilliance were there as early as Iowa State, but only until the past month has Jontay displayed the consistent ability to take over games - or at the very least dramatically influence them. He’s put up at least 17 points in 4 of his past 5 games, shooting a scalding 59% from 3, while also pulling down at least 7 rebounds per contest. The late season run likely cemented his status as an SEC All-Freshman team member and SEC Co-Sixth-Man of the Year.

None of that is to say Missouri fans wouldn’t have enjoyed watching Jontay with Michael on the floor. But it has been pretty special to watch the freshman develop the mental edge that’s taken him from a key contributor to probably the team’s best overall player (barring a completely healthy MPJ.) Maybe it’s something we could have enjoyed a year later, but the pressure to perform in his brother’s introduced an extra element of drama to the season.

It also might have been to the team’s benefit, in a bizarre way. When the Tigers take the floor Friday for their first NCAA Tournament game in 1,821 days, they’ll have Michael Porter Jr. back for only his second full game of the season. But make no mistake, Missouri won’t be making a deep March run without the continuing heroics of Jontay.

On this week’s episode of Dive Cuts, Sam and Matt gave a pretty good breakdown of Friday’s match up against Florida State before they both picked a Missouri win. I understand this is a classic 8-9 tossup game, but I’m not so convinced Missouri makes it to Sunday.

Granted, I don’t think there’s an entirely convincing argument for either team, but the look of Florida State - a big, athletic team that plays fast and gets to the line - gives me an uneasy feeling. Looking at the KenPom sheets, there isn’t a lot of give on either side, with the notable exceptions of Florida State’s 3-point defense and Missouri’s turnover troubles. But while the Seminoles don’t turn their opponents over at an exceptional clip, Missouri has been prone to giving the ball up to teams that don’t pressure all that much. Plus, State’s biggest hole may be somewhat neutralized with the loss of Jordan Barnett, the Tigers’ primary catch-and-shoot threat. That isn’t to say Kassius, the Porters, or even Geist couldn’t give the Seminoles problems. But Barnett is a major loss that will be difficult to overcome.

Still, difficult doesn’t equal impossible, especially with Jontay on the floor. Looking over the Seminole roster and game logs, it’s becoming clear there are several ways Jontay could swing this game to the Tigers’ favor.

Perhaps most notably, Jontay has the ability to neutralize some of Florida State’s defensive weapons inside. Looking over FSU’s roster, it’s hard not to notice the pair of towering figures in 7’4” junior Christ Koumadje and 7’0” freshman Ike Obiagu. But after those two, the Seminole’s don’t have anyone over 6’8”, as most of their height advantage comes in the back court. And to boot, neither Koumadje or Obiagu play significant minutes. Koumadje sees more, but is usually 7th or 8th in terms of minutes played.

Jontay’s 3- point shooting ability really plays a key role here as he presents a few match up problems for Coach Leonard Hamilton. When one of his 7-footers is in and Jontay gets the ball up top, does he have them leave the paint or stay where they are? Neither option is entirely appealing. Jontay’s on a hot streak beyond the arc, and leaving him open is basically ceding your team’s biggest defensive weakness. Bringing them up unclogs the lane, leaving Florida State uncharacteristically open to damage down low.

So what if Hamilton decides to go with a smaller, faster lineup? There, any defender will be giving Jontay at least 3 inches on the post. Double teaming leaves FSU at risk of an in-and-out assault at the hands of Jontay’s passing skills, and for all their defensive success in the paint, the Seminoles aren’t great on direct feeds to the block.

On the defensive side, Florida State loves to attack the rim, which is where Jontay serves as Missouri’s biggest weapon. He owns Top 100 defensive rebounding and block percentages and, if he can stay out of foul trouble, he should be able to force the Seminoles outside, where they’re not particularly strong - 156th in 3-point percentage.

Of course, this is asking a lot of the freshman, especially on the biggest stage - and against one of the better teams - he’ll have ever played. But then again that’s why the word “need” is in the headline and not something more fluid like “could” or “may.” And in a season where Tiger fans have watched Jontay grow from role player to all-around star, it sure would be fitting to watch him key a deep run into March, wouldn’t it?