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No Jontay? At least Cuonzo Martin is used to dealing with adversity

Missouri loses their star forward and everything sucks all the time always except that there’s still reason to be optimistic.

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

Sometimes, shit happens.

Now, Missouri fans certainly think shit happens to them with more frequency than other fanbases. Quite often, I’d have to remind folks bad breaks are a fact of life, that cosmic forces aren’t continually conspiring to inflict extra trauma on those who root for the Tigers.

But I’m not sure I can recall anything close this.

On Sunday, we learned Jontay Porter is done for the year, felled by a torn MCL and ACL in his right knee. This is all too familiar: a five-star talent sideline before he could leave his deepest imprint on the Missouri program, whose best-laid plans are now in shambles.

It’s enough to make you believe a dark cloud does hang over MU.

For once, Missouri made the cutthroat move. They hired the right guy in Michale Porter Sr., who raised two elite basketball players and just so happened to do it in Columbia. Now, they’re about to miss out on both of those players’ best seasons in college basketball.

First, Michael Porter Jr, who was long projected to be the potential top overall pick in the NBA draft in 2018, was sidelined by a back surgery for all but 53 minutes of action last season. In June, he slid all the way to 14th overall in the draft — the final spot in the lottery — and the Denver Nuggets, which snatched him in what amounts to a calculated risk that Porter will be healthy moving forward.

Now, his younger brother crumpled to the floor during — of all things — a closed-door scrimmage against Southern Illinois. The cruel irony is our final viewing of Jontay Porter in black and gold may have been Saturday night during Mizzou Madness.

It’s all pretty astonishing.

Missouri inked Porter Sr. to a three-year, $1.125 million deal, and in return will reap just two games from Michael and Jontay’s defacto senior year of high school. No, fault doesn’t rest with any member of the family.. Fate was cruel. But it’s still a tough pill to swallow.

This upcoming season was largely hinging on the kind of step Jontay Porter took in his sophomore campaign. He spent this offseason working with strength coach Nicodemus Christopher to transform his young body into one ready for everything the SEC throws at you. And Porter looked excited and ready.

I headlined our upcoming Missouri preview with a statement I thought could come true: “Jontay Porter can be the most dominant player in the SEC.” Jontay’s versatility across the box score made me feel it was attainable.

Here’s a bit from that piece, which will now be deleted and remade:

Lost in the hubbub that came with the addition of Michael Porter Jr. was the fact that MU also added his younger brother, a top-20 recruit in his own right, to the mix. It was only after MPJ went down that Jontay Porter’s ample gifts and skill were recognized.

Porter is a pleasure to watch, the embodiment of a modern day post player. Most people quickly point out Porter’s ability to consistent stroke a deep 3-pointers, but Porter does so much more — and all over the floor — to impact the game. Now, he’s had a full offseason to work with Mizzou’s strength and conditioning coach Nicodemus Christopher and transform his body. All these things add up to a season where Jontay Porter could be the most dominant player in the SEC.

He won’t likely lead the league in scoring. In fact, he may not be a leader in any statistical category. But Jontay will fill each corner of the stat sheet and boost the Tigers chances at an NCAA tournament bid in the process. The Porter era at Mizzou is just getting going.

If there’s good news (there isn’t) in any of this, Mizzou and Cuonzo Martin were in this same position last year.

Their best player and the focus of their offense was subtracted just two minutes into a season-opening win over Iowa State. Somehow, Martin and the Tigers survived and reached the NCAA tournament. Losing Porter Jr. forced a more immediate change of course, and Martin obliged, adapting in such fast order that it almost appeared as if he knew what was coming. That’s the blessing of having a coach like Martin at the helm.

He doesn’t flinch.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

You might raise questions about Martin’s offensive approach or style of play. You can’t question his grit. He made it out of The Hole in East St. Louis. He carved out a career in Europe despite bone grinding on bone in his knee. He overcame cancer and worked his way up the coaching ladder at Missouri State, Tennessee and Cal.

There’s an expectation that Martin can navigate a program through this adversity. So Martin has to pivot. Once again, you’ve lost your best player. What do you do?

Truth be told, this is the team Cuonzo Martin was likely expecting to have a roster similar to this one once Florida State bounced Mizzou from the first round of the big dance. He knew Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett were set to graduate and that Porter Jr. would turn pro. The fact that Jontay Porter passed on staying in the NBA draft and decided to return drastically altered the outlook for 2018-19.

Now, the pivot becomes tougher.

Hopefully, it leads towards a steadfastness from your players. Last year taught us that Martin can engrain certain level of resilience among his players. The Tigers also have a moderate amount of flexibility in their frontcourt to absorb a loss. The issue is whether he can extract enough production from Kevin Puryear, Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko to offset losing the best player from your lineup. Obviously, that’s not ideal.

Puryear is certain to slot into the starting lineup, while the pressure mounts on Jeremiah Tilmon to take another step and, you know, not foul out in a ton of games. The frontcourt goes from perhaps the best in the SEC to a minor strength of the team.

Late last week, Missouri was a team hoping goes waivers could pave the way for Dru Smith and Mark Smith to join the roster and let the Tigers make a serious run at a solid seed in the SEC tournament. On Sunday night, they were a group wondering where they can go without Jontay Porter.

I can’t sugarcoat the situation. It’s horrible news. But this is why you pay Martin big money: the hope he can navigate choppy waters and come stronger on the other side.