5 months ago:
I didn’t want to go to a Kansas, a Kentucky, where I could be just another great player. I wanted to go to a school where I could really make a big difference and leave a legacy.
“Leave a legacy.”
Those are the three words that will invariably be attached to Michael Porter Jr.’s time at the University of Missouri. On multiple occasions, he cited it as the key cog in his decision to pick the hometown school over blue blood suitors. He repeated it with the suggestion he may not be a typical one-and-done NBA prospect. And now, on the flip side, fans have clung to those three words, hoping beyond hope that the concept will be enough to salvage another disappointing turn in a school’s history that seems to be full of them.
Following Missouri’s exit from the NCAA Tournament, whenever it may be, Porter will almost certainly leave to become a millionaire in the NBA. And, to our great collective dismay, it appears more likely with each passing game that his brother Jontay might join him.
It seems, barring an unexpected March run or return from both Porters, that Missouri’s much-anticipated return to basketball “glory” will play out more like a return to relevance. And, yes, it’s impossible to look at that as a Missouri fan and not feel at least the slightest twinge of disappointment at what could have been.
But even if Missouri bows out of the NCAA Tournament Friday night against Florida State, and neither Porter sets foot on Norm Stewart Court again, their legacy in Columbia is secure. And let’s not try to pretend otherwise.
A little more than a year ago, Sam wrote this post-mortem on the 2017 season, and Kim Anderson’s tenure at Missouri as a whole.
That’s what made last night [Missouri’s win against Auburn in the 2017 SEC Tournament] so sweet and fun to watch.
To watch good people celebrate was fun. If only for one last time an very unexpected and dramatic fashion. But it wasn’t meant to last, it never was. I don’t take joy in Kim Anderson losing his job, or his assistants looking for new homes next year. We wanted these men to succeed because we knew it mattered to them. It wasn’t enough.
(Oddly enough, one year ago today, Sam also previewed Cuonzo Martin as a potential hire for Missouri.)
I really like that middle sentence. “But it wasn’t meant to last, it never was.” It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend the day Anderson was hired. We both shared the trepidation of hiring a non-entity at the D1 level, but we hoped he could catch a spark. Deep down, I think we — and almost every other hopeful Tiger — knew it wasn’t going to happen.
Look, there’s no point in wallowing in the past few years. There’s good, fun basketball to be celebrated in the here and now. But it is important to remember the perspective of the past 5 seasons, recognizing the eye-popping change in that fifth marker.
- 2014: 23-12; 69 in KenPom; 8th in SEC; No. 2 seed in NIT.
- 2015: 9-23; 192 in KenPom; 14th in SEC; no postseason.
- 2016: 10-21; 159 in KenPom; 14th in SEC; ineligible for postseason.
- 2017: 8-24; 156 in KenPom; 14th in SEC; no postseason.
- 2018: 20-12; 38 in KenPom; 5th in SEC; No. 8 seed in NCAA.
Just the sight of those few surface-level numbers is enough to engender a smile; the worst three-year men’s basketball stretch since the 1960’s, flipped on its head in one year’s time.
Without belaboring the point — because you likely already get it — the one-year turnaround has been astronomical. There are a lot of factors at play: Cuonzo Martin, better recruiting, Kassius Robertson, development from holdover talent, etc.
No, Michael Porter Jr. wasn’t the only reason this happened, but you’re fooling yourself if you think he wasn’t one of the big reasons. When else would top-10 recruits be taking official visits to Columbia, and when else would Missouri have top-20 odds to win the national championship? That only comes with the presence of a once-in-a-generation talent.
Another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the Porter, “legacy,” is no longer just Michael’s.
When Jontay Porter reclassified, it seemed like just another piece to the puzzle. The phrase, “He’s supposed to be in high school,” is reaching kitsch levels now, but at the time, it seemed like a fair standard of expectations. A five-star recruit, he may have been. But he didn’t have his brother’s scoring ability. He wasn’t as polished as his older brother. And what about his brother’s athleticism?
Of course, we know now that Jontay Porter is much more than a little brother. Over the course of this season, one he likely expected to play in a supporting role, Jontay has evolved into Missouri’s best overall player.
Yes, Robertson got the (deserved) first-team all-SEC honors. But no other player on this roster — who played all year — has the box-score-stuffing ability Jontay does. There are a handful of games you could point to as possible losses without Jontay’s contributions. And he’s the inspiration for everyone’s favorite not-so-circumstantial stat: the team’s record when Jontay scores at least 10.
Missouri improves to 15-1 when Jontay Porter scores at least 10 points (19 pts tonight) pic.twitter.com/lsoDIUFLVn— Tramel Raggs (@Raggs_No_Riches) March 4, 2018
(That’s 15-2 after the Georgia loss.)
As mentioned above, this all comes with a cost. When Jontay had to step up and fill a larger role on this team, he reached NBA Draft level faster than many of us would have liked or expected. And as he continues showing out, the likelihood he is also gone next year increases. But even if he does, there is no mistaking: Jontay’s legacy is equal to his brother’s, and even greater in some ways.
A nicer way to say it? The Porter legacy is theirs to share.
I’ve said before that it will be impossible to separate this year from the back injury. When it’s all said and done, we’ll step back and appreciate what a fun year it’s been, and eventually even the most stubborn feelings of disappointment will evaporate. The injury — and all that could have been without it — won’t feel so much like frustration as it will an asterisk.
But it will be there. There is no separating the loss of a lottery pick from a potentially special season.
But even if it’s not the way we envisioned, this season has been a special one. That was cemented when Missouri’s name was called in the NCAA Selection Show, completing the unlikeliest of turnarounds. This season is now a strong foundation on which Coach Martin can build, on and off the court. It also served as the launching point for new Missouri basketball legends.
Who among us won’t be talking about the lights-out shooting of Kassius Robertson for years to come? Won’t we still get chills every time we see replays of Kevin Puryear knocking down the game-winning three against Mississippi State? Is this the season we look back on as the budding of Jeremiah Tilmon?
Most importantly, we saw the immediate, day-one restoration of spirit and energy at Mizzou Arena. Before this team ever took the floor, the fan base had bought in 100 percent. That doesn’t happen without Michael Porter, Jr., no matter how much he played. And it isn’t sustained without the emergence of Jontay, no matter how long he stays.
It may not be the “legacy” we had all envisioned. But it is one worth celebrating.