The season that revived MU basketball, from a player, fan, reporter and AD

The Tigers made their first NCAA Tournament in five years under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin despite numerous twists and turns.
Michel Porter Jr. after Missouri's season-ending loss to Florida State.

Even for MU athletic director Jim Sterk, there was an element of mystery when it happened.

Michael Porter Jr., the No. 1 freshman recruit in the country, inexplicably exited without return two minutes into Missouri’s 2017-18 season. After months of build-up around the team, the star who had brought excitement back to Missouri men’s basketball was nothing more than a question mark.

“It was pretty fuzzy with me too as far as what happened exactly,” Sterk said a year later. “I was aware as I could be at that point.”

Cuonzo Martin’s first season at the helm of Missouri was filled with fuzziness. It was filled with a continuous flow of lost assets and thrown-away games. It was filled with every imaginable obstacle. When it was all over in March, it had revived the program in unimaginable ways.

“It was a roller coaster, but really exciting,” former point guard Brett Rau said. “The whole year was a really fun ride.”

Making sense of that roller coaster still isn’t easy, but the perspective of an administrator (Sterk), a player (Rau), a reporter (Dave Matter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch MU athletics beat writer) and a fan (sophomore Rileigh Maddock) may help the task as Missouri prepares for a strong follow-up effort in 2018-19.

It all started in the 2016-17 effort, a third straight losing season (8-24, 2-16 SEC) that forced Kim Anderson out and brought Martin in. With Martin’s roots in East Saint Louis and experience leading Division I programs Missouri State, Tennessee and California, Sterk thought he was “a perfect fit” for Missouri. Martin started by adding several assistants to his staff, including Michael Porter Sr. Enter Junior. It all happened more than six months before opening night.

Porter Jr. had initially committed to play at Washington. After Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar was fired in March, Porter Jr. decommitted from Washington, where his father had previously been an assistant coach. After Porter Sr. joined Martin’s coaching staff, the possibility of Porter Jr. returning home to Columbia came into the picture. Porter Jr. eventually committed to play at Missouri in April.

“[Martin] was positive on the personal side, and on the basketball side it had a huge impact,” Sterk said.

The Columbia native Porter Jr. brought brother Jontay along, joining two sisters and an aunt already involved in the women’s team. Porter Jr. made his long-awaited debut at Mizzou Arena against Iowa State in front of a sold out crowd of 15,061.

“It was a long time coming for a lot of fans that had gone through the three or four years of things being really down,” Matter said.

That crowd was greeted with two consecutive rebounds and a put back layup from Porter. The place was shaking. The Missouri bench could only marvel at the scene.

“It was the start of the revive of the program,” Rau said.

But after two minutes on the court, Porter Jr. joined Rau on the bench. His disappearance led to two hours of speculation among the 15,061 at the arena, and weeks of it from fans and media afterward.

“When [Porter Jr.] left the game, as a fan, it was really saddening, obviously because he was hurt, but also because everyone had gotten really excited about Mizzou basketball when he arrived,” Maddock said.

The speculation ended when Porter Jr. was declared out for the season on Nov. 21. Back surgery would keep him out for three to four months. His career at Missouri, all too short, seemed over. That didn’t mean it was over for the rest of the roster, though.

“That group was able to bounce back and recover from it really well,” Matter said. “The fans were more panicked; the team was fine. They went went out on a mission to prove that they didn’t need Michael to have a good season.”

With senior Jordan Barnett and graduate transfer Kassius Robertson leading the way and freshmen Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter making a name for themselves, the Tigers went 10-3 in non-conference play, with losses to Utah, then-No. 11 West Virginia and Illinois in the annual Braggin’ Rights Game. Still, the losses seemed to outweigh the wins in remembrance.

Helping players escape that mindset, Rau said, was what Martin excelled at.

“He definitely has rubbed off on all of us,” Rau said. “Everything from life to basketball. He’s just all around a great coach and really wants the best for all of us and will do anything for that to happen.”

The Tigers started SEC play 4-5, losing heartbreakers to Florida and Arkansas. Losing late leads became a theme between those and the West Virginia collapse, and losing players didn’t make things any easier. Two of Martin’s early backcourt recruits, C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris, transferred in a matter of weeks. Junior guard Terrence Phillips came under investigation from MU’s Title IX office for various sexual misconduct allegations, and not long after, he was no longer part of the program.

“Nothing seemed to be going in our favor. One thing after another just kept happening. What was supposed to be such an amazing season really started to seem hellish,” Maddock said.

It was not until John Calipari's Kentucky powerhouse came to Columbia that the trend of the season began to shift. The Wildcats (No. 21 at the time) came to Missouri in early February, and Missouri filled Mizzou Arena for a 69-60 upset. It was Missouri’s first-ever victory over Kentucky.

“There was just pure joy,” Rau said. “Beating a perennial powerhouse, that kind of gives the fans and gives us [the feeling] that this thing is going in the right direction. It gives you a lot of confidence in yourself, your teammates and the program. That was a special moment.”

The Tigers picked up another big win at home over Mississippi State. After losing to the Bulldogs on the road earlier in the season, Missouri lost a late 12-point lead but won 89-85 in overtime on a late Kevin Puryear three.

“That game was such a rollercoaster,” Maddock said. “We were up big and then all of the sudden Mississippi State forces us to go to overtime. When Puryear hit that three to put us ahead in OT it was crazy. That win was huge, especially since we had lost to them earlier in the season.”

Through it all, the opportunity opened for a Porter Jr. return.

“It really kept us excited and on edge for the rest of the season,” Maddock said.

The fans got the moment they were waiting for when he was cleared to play for the first time in a postseason setting. Missouri finished the regular season with a 10-8 conference record, heading to the SEC Tournament in St. Louis as the No. 5 seed. With an NCAA bid all but sealed and lower stakes in the impending second-round game, the chance was golden for Porter Jr. to get his tryout. Again No. 12 seed Georgia, he played 23 minutes, but the Tigers were upset by the Bulldogs 60-62.

“All the fans were so excited to see him back on the court, and to lose such a close game in the tournament was devastating,” Maddock said.

After its short time in the SEC tournament, Missouri headed into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 8 seed in the west region. The week before the first round of the Tournament, Barnett was arrested for DWI. He was ineligible for the game against Florida State. With only eight available players, Missouri went to Nashville, Tennessee, short-handed and without its second leading scorer in Barnett. The injured Porter Jr. and the walk-on Rau were thrown suddenly into important minutes.

In Porter Jr.’s second game back from injury, the freshman contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes. It wouldn’t be enough. Missouri lost to Florida State 67-54 in a game that fell flat in a matter of minutes. The Tigers finished the season 20-13.

Sterk, Matter and others will attest the positives will be remembered more than the team’s sour ending.

“I mean we were selling out games with [Porter Jr.] not even playing too,” Rau said.

The team was able to adapt without its star recruit and place fifth in an improved SEC.

“I think it’s a testament to the team and the coaches,” Sterk said. “They fought through adversity. I was really proud of them for doing that.”

It all led to the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013.

“[Last season was] what the standard at Missouri was for a really long time, making Hearnes Center and Mizzou Arena a tough place to play,” Matter said. “And last season it got back to that.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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