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R.I.P. Mizzou Basketball 2017-18

It’s never how you envision it.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

You always picture things going differently. When you’re the number one recruit in the country, and you commit to play for the home-town school, the imagination builds ideas of grandeur: playing on big stages against elite teams, going to the NCAA tournament, and finding a way to have the game of your life when it matters most.

None of that happened for Michael Porter Jr. None of it happened the way he thought it would.

Kassius Robertson pictured he would be a role player when he committed to Missouri last spring. He imagined getting open looks from deep several times a game as defenses focused on his star freshman teammate.

None of that happened for Kassius either. Instead, he ended up being an all-SEC player on a tournament team.

The 2017-18 season is over for the Missouri Tigers, and in almost every way possible it both exceeded and fell short of expectations. The weird part of all of this is that our expectations at the beginning of the season, versus what actually happened, were as far apart as you could imagine, yet the end result was mostly what we predicted it might be.

Missouri finished 20-13 overall, 10-8 in league play, and landed in the NCAA tournament as an 8-seed. Before the season I thought they would go 21-10 (SEC tournament not included) and 11-7. They fell just shy.

The prediction was made with the idea of a generational talent like Michael Porter Jr. leading Mizzou in scoring, Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson banging 3s from the outside when Porter got double or triple teamed, and a couple young freshman bigs supplying defense and rebounding on the inside.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

And yet, the plans had to constantly change.

Mizzou played its first NCAA tournament game in five years with seven scholarship players. Michael Porter Jr. gave them a valiant 28 minutes off the bench. The bench was so depleted that Cuonzo Martin had to turn to Brett Rau for 12 minutes. And then foul trouble came and bit the Tigers again, leading Jeremiah TIlmon and Jontay Porter to spend far too much time on the bench.

Cuonzo Martin exudes a level of toughness that was deeply needed for this program. The season was encapsulated by the game against Florida State. Get dealt a crushing early blow, stagger around and look vulnerable, gather yourself, fight back, and make a run.

They fell short. But this team was always going to fall short.

Despite preseason Vegas odds bordering on lunacy, Missouri wasn’t going to be a national title contender with Michael Porter Jr. healthy. So when he got hurt, it all got thrown out. The fact the Tigers landed where they did is a testament to the character and resiliency instilled into them by their head coach.

I’m not sure how any Missouri fan couldn’t feel optimistic heading into this offseason.

After witnessing the darkest period of Missouri basketball in 50 years, Cuonzo Martin took over and needed one short calendar year to drag the Tigers to an NCAA tournament.

Sure, a depleted roster fell far short in a game against a tough, experienced, and sound defensive matchup. But the foundation has been set.

Cuonzo Martin has been working hard to recruit the kinds of players Missouri has long missed out on and is in very good shape with a lot of guys that will get people excited to cheer for the Tigers every year.

There are still some questions to be answered in the coming weeks:

  • How many Porter brothers will be on the roster next season?
  • Will there be any transfers?
  • How will Missouri fill its last few scholarships?

The overall number of scholarships will change based upon the decisions of both Porters. We obviously have long expected Michael Porter Jr. to enter the NBA draft. The rumblings of a potential return have increased in the last few weeks or so, but I still think it’s a long shot that we get a sophomore version of MPJ.

Jontay is the bigger question. He should and probably will test the waters, but with a slightly weaker 2019 draft, Jontay could come back and work his way into the lottery after being projected as a late-first or early-second rounder this year.

If both come back, you have one scholarship to give out. If both leave, you have three, and with their pursuit of a certain blue-chip point guard (Courtney Ramey), you’d have to imagine this is the best case scenario of filling the scholarships up.

There are also still some unanswered questions about Cuonzo Martin, too.

He adapted his offense to be more pro-like, and the Tigers ran a lot more creative sets in the half court. But the roster’s lack of a point guard forced Cuonzo to fall back into his comfort zone of trying to control pace.

Can Martin play faster if he has the personnel? Will Mizzou ever be a team that averages over 70 possessions a game? Once the Porters are off the roster, will he resort to the Keady-style ground-em and pound-em game?

These are legitimate questions. But as far as I’m concerned he’s answered every other question we’ve had so far. So if Cuonzo can somehow manage to turn up the pace while still adapting his offensive approach and continue to have the answers in Missouri recruiting there’s a very good chance he could be the last Missouri basketball coach for a while.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Missouri basketball program is in good shape right now.

If Jontay Porter comes back, the ceiling for next season is raised to one of competing for a double-bye in the SEC tournament and maybe as high as a 6 seed in the NCAAs.

If Michael Porter Jr. comes back, the ceiling for next season goes absolutely through the roof, with talk of potential Final Fours.

Overall, the roster is still short on ball handling. The Tigers need someone like Ramey or a graduate transfer guard. Jordan Geist was admirable this season, but he needs a reduced role to be the best version of himself.

The college basketball offseason is the longest of any, and there’s a lot of work to do and decisions to be made. But one thing is certain: Mizzou Basketball matters again.

EDIT: Changed the scholarship paragraph after miscounting in the original post.