The Maneater

Column: Missing 'flow' in March damaged Missouri’s depleted roster

Michael Porter Jr.’s return proved to be more untimely than anything.

Michel Porter Jr. after Missouri's season-ending loss to Florida State.

The Missouri Tigers trudged to the locker room, confused and defeated. It was already over.

It was already over when Missouri made a second-half push to slice Florida State’s once 22-point lead to 6. It was already over when the team rolled to a 7-1 start moments after Michael Porter Jr. checked into the game. It might as well have been over before the Tigers took the floor at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, ahead of their first NCAA Tournament game in five years.

But never was that sense of dread stronger than halftime, as Cuonzo Martin and the Tigers walked off the court having surrendered the last 13 points of the frame to go into the break down 42-20.

“That first half, I was very angry, because we didn’t show fight,” Martin said.

They were shooting 3-for-14 from outside, with just five total field goals. They had racked up 10 turnovers. Walk-on turned role player Brett Rau had 3 points. The Porter brothers had combined for the same.

“When you’ve got three really big guys like that on the perimeter, and we’ve never played like that all season, it’s hard,” Martin said.

That was the plague Missouri suffered from in its season’s decisive half — the same bug that infected it against Georgia in the SEC Tournament last week. It was a potential problem that in one regard was written off by Martin and the team in prior weeks, and it was one that caught up with them for the last time after the deficit had been shaved on Friday.

Chemistry. Flow.

One topic brings those two words to mind in particular. Murmurs of what Porter Jr.’s possible return would mean for chemistry circulated for weeks. Those were met with louder, defiant yells that he’s the most talented player in the country, that there’s no such thing as chemistry when you have that kind of athlete.

So it happened. Porter Jr. returned for two games. They were both in the postseason. Missouri was upset by Georgia, then beaten badly by Florida State.

“It was more so complicated for our [other] players,” Martin admitted.

That was evident against Georgia and in the first half against the Seminoles, when graduate transfer and sharpshooter Kassius Robertson suddenly received diminished opportunities to hit big shots. It was one of several role changes that seemed to result from Porter Jr.’s return.

“We lost both games I played,” Porter Jr. said after the season-ending defeat, “so I don’t feel like I helped the team.”

Head drooped as he spoke, Porter Jr. acknowledged that he never experienced back-to-back losses like this as a high school superstar.

“Next time I step on a basketball court,” he said, “it’s not going to be like this.”

Not going to be like his 9-for-29 shooting total across the two games he was back for, not like the three turnovers against Florida State that contributed to Missouri’s spiral.

Those shooting numbers without a doubt will get better with time and health. But the question remains: If he knew he wasn’t at 100 percent, why try to take over games? Why average 14.5 shots in those two contests, on a team that functioned well without that?

And as Martin recognized on the coaching side: Why throw Porter Jr. into games for the first time in such high-stakes matchups?

“It’s not as if he had a couple of what you would call cupcake games to get in the rhythm,” Martin said. “This is the highest level.”

But amidst the public obsession with seeing him suit up, and perhaps the dire need for an extra body, Martin and the Tigers relied heavily on their less-than-100 percent freshman down the stretch this season anyway. They relied on him even when, in the first half against Florida State, he embarrassingly sent two jump shots in isolation short of everything.

That and the rest of the first half on Friday night told the frustrating tale in a more bitterly fitting fashion than anything else.

The Tigers, like against Georgia, started hot. They led 7-1, and then as quickly as they jumped to the advantage, they lost it. And again like in that Georgia game, they let it get worse rather than responding.

“We didn’t get into a flow like we needed to,” Martin said. Finding that flow was what he preached after Missouri got its selection last Sunday. While Porter Jr., as the new guy, was naturally the center of that conversation though, other factors played in.

Take Jordan Barnett.

The senior who contributed 34 minutes per game this season was arrested on a DWI last weekend and subsequently suspended by the team through Friday’s game. That hole was hard to fill with any sort of flow.

“He’s been a part of it,” Martin said on Barnett. Porter Jr., who filled many of those missing minutes, hadn’t been. “That’s really hard when you haven’t been in practices, with reps and plays.”

Barnett’s absence was one of many untimely hiccups that spanned the season. It seemed as though this team never had a chance to fully establish itself as a solidified group. Whether it was transferring point guards in December or injuries to just about everyone throughout the year, Missouri was constantly in adjustment mode.

So naturally, after rolling over in a 13-0 final five minutes of the first half against the Seminoles, the Tigers had to go into adjustment mode to start the second.

Those included opening up Robertson for more shots. He hit four 3s early in the half to guide a 10-1 run stretched into something bigger and better. It just wasn’t quite big enough to bring Mizzou all the way back.

“We had couple costly turnovers and mistakes,” Martin said.

Those mistakes resulted in a 15-0 onslaught from the Seminoles that buried Missouri just moments after it had the deficit down to 6.

Those turnovers and avoidable mistakes were the same problems that followed the Tigers around in the first half. Failure to finish in a potentially resilient moment burned Missouri then as it did in several games in the 2017-18 campaign. Consistency never existed.

Now as the future holds as little certainty as the past for the program, Martin’s next quest is to find an answer to those problems. If Missouri is going to find a flow in its future, first it must find — and keep — the right cast.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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