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What If... Michael Porter Jr. never got hurt?

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The story of Michael Porter’s injury has been told and re-told in the three years since. But what if it never happened?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The story of Mizzou sports is too long and historied to make hyperbolic claims such as, “the greatest unknown,” or, “the biggest ‘what if.’” As we’ve seen during SB Nation’s, “What If...,” week, Bill C. has already run down alternate realities in which Missouri raises a National Championship banner in Hoops and nets its only BCS Bowl championship in that era. Those are massive swings from reality that would put both programs in significantly different places than they are today.

However, I do think there’s a case to be made that the question of Michael Porter Jr., and what happens if he doesn’t get hurt, is one that will define Missouri basketball for at least 10 years, if not longer.

NCAA Basketball: Miami (OH) at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no need for a ton of preamble, as you all know the story by heart. But let’s run it down by the highlights: the number one recruit in the country is a Columbia native; he moves away to play for a family friend; Mizzou becomes one of the worst Power 5 teams in the country; MPJ’s coach is fired at the same time as Mizzou’s; a whirlwind of events brings his family back home; he commits to the Tigers; in the first two minutes of the season opener, he checks out with an injury; he doesn’t return until the next spring.

The hypothetical is simple. What if, instead of checking out against Iowa State and eventually getting back surgery, Michael Porter Jr. continues to play as we expected throughout his lone year as a Missouri Tiger? Let’s suppose that original injury (be it from summer ball, practice, workouts, etc.) either didn’t take place or was healed up to the point where it never affected MPJ’s abilities during the 2017-2018 season.

To borrow from Bill’s Larry Johnson piece — which was my original plan anyway, but you have to give credit to the Godfather or he’ll put a horse head in your sheets — we need to start by redistributing some minutes in Missouri’s roster. To start, here’s the original breakdown of minutes, along with a few other per game stats that would seemingly be affected by Porter’s presence.

2017-2018 Mizzou Hoops

Player MPG PPG RPG APG TOPG
Player MPG PPG RPG APG TOPG
Kassius Robertson 36 16.3 3 2.3 2.3
Jordan Barnett 34.1 13.7 5.9 1.1 1.6
Jontay Porter 24.5 9.9 6.8 2.2 1.9
Kevin Puryear 25.3 8.6 4.3 0.8 1.5
Jeremiah Tilmon 19.4 8.2 4.2 0.5 2.1
Jordan Geist 26.1 7.3 3.8 2.9 1.7
Blake Harris 13.9 3.8 2.4 3.1 1.7
Terrence Phillips 10.6 2.5 1.5 1.9 1.1
Cullen VanLeer 14.3 2.4 1.4 1 0.7
Reed Nikko 8.1 2.3 2 0.2 0.5

Now let’s do some redistribution! We’ll try to be as mathematical as possible, but at this point we’re basically role-playing. As with all estimates, I’ll lean conservative (sorry, he’s not scoring 24 points a game), but we do need to remember that this was the number one recruit in America and had a real shot at being the NBA’s number one pick.

Similar to Bill’s piece, I’m going to go ahead and say that Porter is pulling minutes from a pool of players. Kevin Puryear probably, “suffers” the most from MPJ’s presence, and he’ll take the biggest minutes hit. Given Mizzou’s size, we should also assume Porter would have taken some time at the wing, dinging CVL heavily. His brother, Jontay, likely sees less floor time, too. If we assume Porter plays 31 minutes a game, we’re going to say that MPJ takes 10 minutes from Puryear and CVL, along with eight from Jontay. We’ll also poach one minute each from Tilmon, Nikko and Jordan Barnett just to cover some of the sliding doors.

After some quick calculations, we come up with this new pool of stats. Trae Young led the NCAA in PPG that year with 27.4. Let’s say MPJ isn’t quite that good, but does average 19.5 a game. Given that he was the team’s second-leading rebounder per game while he was badly injured, we’ll also bump him up 2 boards a game while throwing him 1.5 assists and 2 turnovers (he was a freshman) per game.

2017-2018 Mizzou Hoops with Michael Porter Jr.

Player MPG PPG RPG APG TOPG
Player MPG PPG RPG APG TOPG
Kassius Robertson 36 16.3 3 2.3 2.3
Jordan Barnett 33.1 13.3 5.7 1 1.6
Michael Porter Jr. 31 19.5 8.7 1.5 2
Jontay Porter 16.5 6.7 4.6 1.5 1.3
Kevin Puryear 15.3 5.2 2.6 0.5 0.9
Jeremiah Tilmon 18.4 7.8 4 0.5 2
Jordan Geist 26.1 7.3 3.8 2.9 1.7
Blake Harris 13.9 3.8 2.4 3.1 1.7
Terrence Phillips 10.6 2.5 1.5 1.9 1.1
Cullen VanLeer 4.3 0.7 0.4 0.3 0.2
Reed Nikko 8.1 2 1.8 0.2 0.4
85.1 38.5 15.7 15.2

In this scenario, Missouri sees a small uptick in scoring (duh), but loses a bit in the way of rebounds and assists, as Jontay’s playmaking and rebounding ability is missed in his lesser minutes. This may be unfair considering Jontay played well enough to probably eat away at some of Jeremiah Tilmon and Reed Nikko’s minutes, but how many sliding doors do you want to open here? One other benefit to having Porter on the floor, however — Missouri doesn’t have as much playmaking ability, but also doesn’t turn the ball over quite as much.

Finally, while Michael has never been known as a prestigious defender, it probably isn’t fair to think he would be a complete disaster either. Originally I had calculated that MPJ’s presence might be a net negative to Missouri, but Sam pointed out that his length would’ve caused lots of issues at the college level.

For a final point total, we’ll estimate that Michael Porter Jr. would’ve been worth about +3 points per game on offense — the team averages out to just over +2 per game with these stats, and we’ll round up for the lack of turnovers — and his presence has a neutral effect on the team’s defensive output. Onto the schedule! For clarity’s sake, each game that changes result will be bolded, and asterisks will be placed on notable games.

November

Mizzou 77, Iowa State 59

Mizzou 102, Wagner 55

Utah 77, Mizzou 62

Mizzou 70, Emporia State 62

Mizzou 98, Long Beach State 58

Mizzou 93, St. John’s 82

Mizzou 85, West Virginia 83*

Mizzou 65, UCF 59

Michael Porter Jr.’s presence pays immediate dividends in November, as Mizzou picks up a Quadrant 1 win against West Virginia in the Advocare Invitational championship game. The Tigers head into December 7-1, so let’s...

What’s that? You noticed that the point differential doesn’t line up with the actual final score of the WVU game (83-79 West Virginia.) Let me explain. For those who may not want to recall, Missouri held a 10-point lead on the Mountaineers at the 4:39 mark, after which the wheels fell apart due to turnovers. Javon Carter stole nearly every damn pass within 20 feet of him, single-handedly boosting Bob Huggins’ crew past the good guys.

I think it’s feasible to think Missouri either holds onto that lead or is out of striking distance in the first place for one simple reason — with the numbers we calculated above, the Tigers are far less turnover prone. Turnovers led to the Tigers’ downfall against West Virginia, and even two fewer that game would’ve made the difference. Missouri win’s the Advocare Invitational and likely heads into December ranked.

December

Mizzou 73, Miami (OH) 51

Mizzou 103, Green Bay 77

Mizzou 88, North Florida 51

Mizzou 85, Stephen F. Austin 81

Illinois 70, Mizzou 67

You were hoping Michael Porter’s presence would make a difference in Braggin’ Rights? That’s too bad. I toyed with the idea for a second, but couldn’t bring myself to cheat the rules twice over this early. As you recall, this was the game where Trent Frazier, despite only shooting 5-17 from the field, seemed to hit everything in sight for a hot minute. Porter likely would’ve played a big game in the spotlight, but it’s not enough. Missouri likely stays ranked, but heads into the new year having had their win streak snapped.

January

Mizzou 82, South Carolina 68

Mizzou 78, Florida 77

Mizzou 71, Georgia 56

Arkansas 67, Mizzou 66*

Mizzou 61, Tennessee 55

Texas A&M 60, Mizzou 52

Auburn 91, Mizzou 76

Miss. State 74, Mizzou 65

Mizzou 72, Alabama 60

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Three things here:

  1. January saw some turnover on Missouri’s roster, as Blake Harris transferred out of the program, and Terrence Phillips was suspended (and later removed) from the team as a result of the Title IX investigation. I’m going to guess Harris stays with the Tigers through the end of the year if Porter is playing regularly, though that doesn’t change things in terms of minutes doled out by Cuonzo Martin. Just in case you were wondering.
  2. Missouri does pick up another big win by holding on to beat Florida at home. Missouri shot .414 from two-point range in that game, and I’m guessing Porter probably ups that percentage quite a bit (which would probably be more than enough, considering Missouri made 58 percent of its threes!)
  3. I broke the rules again — sorry! The point differential says Missouri beats Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena on January 13... but I don’t see it. I think even with Porter, Missouri falls victim to the Anderson attack. It’s pretty hard to justify Missouri pulling out a one-point road win, especially in a place like Fayetteville. Plus, I’m balancing things out — I cheated for Missouri against WVU, now I’m cheating against them for Arky.

Missouri still heads into the home stretch of the schedule 16-6 and in prime position to lock up an NCAA berth.

February

Mizzou 71, Kentucky 60

Mizzou 78, Ole Miss 69

Mizzou 92, Miss. State 85

Mizzou 65, Texas A&M 58

Mizzou 66, LSU 64

Mizzou 91, Ole Miss 90*

Kentucky 87, Mizzou 69

Mizzou 77, Vanderbilt 66

This is quite a month now, isn’t it! Missouri is able to flip the LSU result (they learned their road lesson against Arkansas), adding two more Quad 1 wins to the resume.

The only other thing to note here is the Mississippi game, which you’ll recall Missouri lost in OT at Mizzou Arena, 90-87. I don’t think this is technically cheating, seeing as the point differential brings the game to a tie. In that instance, I’m thinking Missouri, who would be 21-6 at the time and riding a six-game win streak, doesn’t drop this game, especially with bucket-getting MPJ on the court.

Missouri has one more game left on the schedule, but is likely locked into an NCAA berth, as well as a Top 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. Things are smooth sailing.

March

Mizzou 80, Arkansas 67

Nothing to see here. Missouri caps its regular season at 24-7 with a breezy revenge win over Arkansas. This likely puts them squarely in the Top 15 teams in the country (Arizona finished its regular season ranked No. 15 with a 24-7 record. By conference record, Missouri is also the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament.

SEC Tournament

Mizzou 84, Mississippi State 80

Mizzou 80, Arkansas 68

Kentucky 76, Mizzou 73

Now we get into the real guessing game. With Mizzou landing in the top two seeds of the SEC Tourney (we’ll say No. 2 since they never beat Auburn), they draw Mississippi State in the quarterfinals, where they win a knock-down-drag-out contest that runs through the final minute. Porter has a down game in his first NCAA postseason matchup, but scores 8 of Mizzou’s last 10 points, including a monster dunk, to close things out late. A few days later, Missouri easily bests Arkansas in the semis behind a double-double performance from MPJ, who’s used to seeing Mike Anderson’s swarming defense at this point.

And while I’d love to get behind an SEC Tournament win, I can’t bring myself to it. Kevin Knox, feeling some heat from Mizzou fans for not choosing their school, has his best college game and out-duels his friend MPJ to give Kentucky the crown. Missouri finishes 26-8 and... still gets slighted a little bit, earning the No. 5 seed in the West Region (the same region in which they received the No. 8 seed in our dimension.)

NCAA Tournament First Round

Mizzou 82, San Diego State 73

Just one off the real 5-12 score from that season! Michael Porter Jr. once again struggles a bit in his NCAA debut, but is picked up by Kassius Robertson and his brother Jontay, who are able to cover for the loss of Jordan Barnett, who is serving out his one-game suspension for DUI.

NCAA Tournament Second Round

Mizzou 88, Gonzaga 82

Going up against former Tiger Johnathan Williams III, Missouri gets through the first weekend of March behind monster performances from Michael Porter Jr. (who scores 32 points to recover from his mediocre second-round game), and Jordan Barnett (who comes out inspired and cans 6-7 from three-point range).

Mizzou marches onto the Sweet 16, where it faces... Florida State.

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

Mizzou 75, Florida State 74

Let’s do some full-on wish fulfillment. It’s easy to feel like Florida State was a team of destiny in 2018, riding their No. 9 seed all the way to the Elite Eight. But Missouri, behind another big performance from Michael Porter Jr., rights the wrongs of the prime reality. In fact, let’s get even a little nuttier...

With one minute left, it feels like Florida State has this one in the bag. They’re up 70-64 and Jeremiah Tilmon, a key contributor in this tournament run, is fouled out on the bench. Porter Jr. continues his hot streak (he’s already up to a double-double with 25-10), but has received little help from Kassius Robertson or Jordan Barnett, who have combined for 18 points. Florida State, on a possession up the floor, makes an errant pass, which Porter Jr. picks off. He’s fouled on the break, where he makes the first of two free throws. The second takes a crazy carom off the back iron right back to him. Swarmed around the rim, he turns around and finds Kash wide open at the top of the arc. Kash, stepping up as he did so often for Missouri in 2017-2018, buries the shot. 70-68, Florida State.

The Seminoles are able to recover and grab two free throws at the other end. There are 32 seconds left. Missouri quickly crosses half-court and draws up a play for Porter, who goes to the rim and draws the and-one. 72-71, Florida State.

Once again, Florida State holds, hitting two free throws to make it 74-71. Missouri quickly pushes the pace, and Jordan Geist is able to draw a foul at the rim, after which he bangs home two free throws. 74-73, Florida State, 12 seconds left.

On the inbounds, Geist once again comes through, taking advantage of the high intensity atmosphere and wrestling an loose ball away from a Seminole guard who desperately wants a foul. With 6 seconds left, Missouri is scrambling for an open shot when the ball finds Porter. MPJ drives to the lane, but finds his path blocked. He cuts out, swarmed by Seminole defenders... only to see his brother Jontay cutting hard toward the hoop. He uses his height to quickly hit the cutting Porter brother, who emphatically slams the ball home with a second left.

The buzzer sounds. Missouri has won 75-74 and is moving on thanks to the heroics of the Porter brothers.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State
In his signature Mizzou moment, Michael Porter Jr. helps lead a furious comeback in the final minute of Mizzou’s 75-74 Elite Eight win over Florida State.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA Elite Eight

Michigan 58, Mizzou 54

Alas, it was not meant to be.

Missouri’s Sweet 16 moment is a show-stopper in the One Shining Moment montage, but the Tigers aren’t able to find their way past a hot Michigan team that eventually makes the finals. MPJ and Kash shine in their final games as Tigers, combing for 38 points, but the rest of the team is smothered by the Wolverines. Missouri battles to the end, but is ultimately undone. Days after the tournament, MPJ pens a heartfelt farewell to the Mizzou faithful and declares his intention to enter the NBA Draft, where he’s drafted No. 7 by the Chicago Bulls.

In Conclusion

As I said in the Florida State section, we’re basically trafficking in wish fulfillment here. Sure, the regular season is based a lot on numbers, but ultimately the Michael Porter Jr. season wasn’t about stats — it was about hope. When MPJ declared, “I’m coming home,” it injected hope into the Mizzou program for the first time in a long time. And while this hypothetical season doesn’t realize the wildest dreams of Tiger fans, it does capitalize on the sensation that lone season could’ve been. It brings Missouri as close as its ever gotten to the Final Four and leaves everyone with a blissful hangover into the offseason.

Maybe it didn’t happen. And maybe it wouldn’t have gone down this smoothly. But that’s the beauty of, “what if...,” — it allows us to close our eyes tight and imagine all the possibilities that once lay in front of us, to write the story we always wanted.