NASHVILLE, TN — The attrition would prove to be more than the Tigers could handle.
Michael Porter Jr., CJ Roberts, Blake Harris, Terrence Phillips and Cullen VanLeer all began the season able and eligible to play basketball for Missouri. The only player from that list who still fit that description entering the NCAA Tournament was Porter Jr.—and he missed basically the entire season before returning in the Tigers’ SEC Tournament loss to Georgia last week.
That list doesn’t include the latest lost Tiger, senior Jordan Barnett, who was suspended for Missouri’s opening round game following a DWI early last Saturday morning.
With only eight eligible bodies in its rotation, Mizzou was a shell of itself in the first half of a 67-54 loss to Florida State Friday night at Bridgestone Arena. Across the first twenty minutes of action, Missouri played the worst half of basketball by any team in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, a 16-seed beat a 1-seed Friday. The point still stands, as the Tigers offense had no flow at all for most of the first half and were practically run out of the arena before opening twenty had elapsed.
“It was pretty stagnant,” Porter Jr. said. “We had a lot of guys trying to get their own shots off, we didn’t move enough. And we were really missing Jordan Barnett tonight.”
After opening up a 7-1 lead to begin the game, Missouri trailed 42-20 going into halftime. The score was a reflection of a performance. The turnovers, the Seminole dunks, the Tiger bricked shots and six missed first-half free throws—it all just sort of blended together after a while as the Tigers unraveled completely and fantastically.
But give them some credit: the Tigers didn't fold. They showed a spark out of the break, going on a 10-1 run to open the second half. Still, a 22-point deficit with 20 minutes to make it disappear—that’s miracle territory, especially for a team with so few active players.
Sure enough, Mizzou didn’t have enough in the tank to climb the rest of the mountain. They got the deficit down to six before FSU took the game back over for good. The undermanned Tigers were gassed, even if they wouldn’t all admit it.
“We went through a few possessions where they scored like, bang, bang, bang, and it was right back to 13,” Jontay Porter said. The younger Porter managed just two points on 1 of 7 shooting. “That really hurt. I wouldn’t say we were out of gas, we just stopped being disciplined and stopped playing as hard as we had to get the lead to six.”
One player who did admit to being gassed was Jontay’s older brother. Barnett’s absence from the rotation forced Porter Jr. into a larger role than his limited game experience had him conditioned for, and at times Friday, it showed.
Rust was to be expected, but it was unavoidable to notice that during the first half’s ugliest moments, no Tiger looked more lost than the one that was expected to put the squad on his shoulders just a few short months ago. Porter Jr.—who said last week after his first game back in the lineup after back surgery that he was not yet 100-percent—heaved multiple air balls. He bricked a couple free throws. Was this star-caliber player folding under the pressure?
It’s hardly fair to view it that way. More than ever, Mizzou needed MPJ Friday, sure. But he didn’t create that situation. It’s a wholly unreasonable burden to place on his shoulders (and surgically repaired back) considering where he’s been—and how recently he’s returned from that place.
“Probably, but I don’t care,” Porter Jr. said regarding the idea he might be criticized for how he played. “I don’t care about criticism. I’ve just got to learn from this and feel everything fully that I’m feeling right now. This is not a feeling I want to feel again.”
Gassed though he may have been, Porter Jr. did finish with a double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) Friday. Whether it was his last college game, he’s not saying, noting that it could be a little while before he makes public his decision on whether to declare for the NBA draft.
The expectation is that he’ll go. Considering his domination of SEC play down the stretch of this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jontay Porter go with him. And as bitter as Friday’s pill is to swallow, it should be noted: if we have seen the last of the Porter boys in black and gold, their time in Columbia, Mo. can be classified only as an overwhelming success—even if it didn’t exactly match the script we had in mind when it all started.
“I think we showed some type of fight in the second half. It wasn't enough,” senior guard Kassius Robertson said. He led the Tigers Friday with 19 points and was 6 of 10 from beyond the arc. “The season overall is moments like this where it hurts and highs. Just being here obviously is a pleasure and making it to the tournament is a huge accomplishment for us.
“Of course, we had higher expectations to go further, but that's not what happened. There's so many positives from this season and joyous moments and playing with these guys and learning from the coaches and experiencing the atmosphere and the fans of Missouri and the support.”
As marvelous a turnaround as Missouri basketball experienced in the past calendar year—it’s been almost a year to the day since Cuonzo Martin was hired—the Tigers simply ran out of gas at the end. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t value in the distance traveled. From eight-win team to twenty-win NCAA Tournament team, Missouri basketball was revived from the dead under Martin this season—and that can never be overstated.
“I think this team will be remembered as far as turning things around, given our past few seasons,” Kevin Puryear said. “But, you know, I'm beyond proud to call these guys my teammates and beyond proud to call these coaches my coaches. We fought a lot of adversity this season and people counted us out at times during the season.
“For us to make the runs that we did and play basketball the way we did, I think it's pretty remarkable and I think that's something that everybody in our locker room should be proud of.”