NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — There was nothing mysterious about Missouri’s resuscitation from the college basketball graveyard. Last March, the Tigers fired Kim Anderson after a third consecutive season spent toiling at the bottom of the SEC totem pole, with only 27 total wins and three last place conference finishes to show for it. Then they hired Cuonzo Martin, an established high major coach raised in nearby East St. Louis, Ill., with a reputation as a strong recruiter. Pay close attention to the next couple of steps, because they’re more important than the ones that preceded them.
Washington canned longtime head man Lorenzo Romar, who had hired Michael Porter as an assistant coach in May 2016. Porter, who lived with his family in Columbia, Mo., during a previous stint as a Missouri women’s coach under his sister-in-law (HC Robin Pingeton), is the father of Michael Porter Jr.—a 6’10’’ wing who’s drawn comparisons to Kevin Durant; the No. 1 recruit in the 2017 Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), a composite incorporating data from several services; and a prime candidate to be selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.
The younger Porter had signed with the Huskies last fall, but he was granted his release and committed to Missouri the same week his father reportedly agreed in principle to join Martin’s staff with the Tigers. And with that, Martin had added one of the best players in the country, ensuring the Tigers would, at the very least, warrant interest from casual college basketball fans and intense scrutiny from NBA ones, after a dismaying spell of irrelevance. The sort of drawn-out, heated courtship that typically goes into reeling in a five-star prospect was not needed.
"I don't want to make it sound like we worked relentless hours,” Martin told Sports Illustrated last month in describing the Porter recruitment.
The Porter pick-up set off a rapid roster revamp that included the addition of Blake Harris, a four-star point guard who had signed with Washington, and Jeremiah Tilmon, a four-star center who had signed with Illinois. Martin also convinced C.J. Roberts, another four-star point guard who signed with Missouri under Anderson, to stick with the Tigers, and tapped the graduate transfer market for Canisius’s Kassius Robertson, a 40% three-point shooter who led the MAAC in offensive rating during conference play last season.
The one unanswered question about Missouri’s makeover seems close to a resolution. Michael Porter Jr.’s younger brother, Jontay, a former Huskies verbal and a top-25 prospect in the class of 2018, is considering teaming up with his older brother in 2016-17 rather than playing another season of high school ball after issuing a verbal pledge to the Tigers in May. The reclassification could seal a top-five recruiting class for Missouri, which finished outside of the top 40 the previous two years, according to the 247Sports Composite.
Jontay addressed his status earlier this month at the Nike Peach Jam, where he was playing with Kansas City-based club Mokan Elite. He said that although he “might be leaning towards” reclassifying, the decision is “not necessarily final.” When SI asked Jontay to address a CBS Sports report quoting him as saying it was a “safe assumption” he would reclassify, he replied, “While I did say it was kind of a safe assumption that I was going to reclass, the decision is not made whatsoever.” Jontay also expressed hope that he would reveal his choice within the next few weeks.
Whenever an official announcement comes down, the upshot is that Jontay is probably going to be suiting up for the Tigers this season. He said that if he were to make that move, it would only be if he felt he “could be one of the most dominant players in the SEC.” At 6’10,’’ 235 pounds, Jontay is physically ready to bang with post behemoths from that conference, and he’s got the court vision and shooting touch to occupy defenders already scrambling to make sure Michael doesn’t get an inch of space. But it seems unlikely he’ll attain the goal mentioned above.
That said, Jontay definitely would help Missouri in its quest to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years, and consequently spare Michael the fate that befell the two previous No. 1 picks, LSU’s Ben Simmons in 2016 and Washington’s Markelle Fultz in 2017. In discussing the expectations at Missouri for the upcoming season, Jontay noted how oddsmakers had pegged the Tigers eighth in their 2018 national title futures. With due allowance for Missouri’s accumulation of high-end freshmen, that feels like a huge stretch even on the condition that Jontay reclassifies.
A top-two conference finish feels like a more realistic goal, but it’s still ambitious. While Kentucky, as detailed by SI last month, is set to undergo one of the most daunting rebuilds in coach John Calipari’s run overseeing Big Blue, most early rankings put the Wildcats in the top 10, and that seems about right. The ground beneath them in the SEC, though, is far from settled. Here are five other squads that should give the Tigers a run for their money as they scrap for the conference silver medal and, if things go sideways in Lexington, a conference championship, listed in alphabetical order.
Alabama: Point guard Collin Sexton, ranked No. 5 in the RSCI, is the league’s must-watch recruit, non-Porter division—a speedy, basket-attacking dynamo who’ll have no trouble shedding most college defenders on the perimeter.
Arkansas: Stud big man Moses Kingsley and leading scorer Dusty Hannahs are gone, but the Hogs got good news this spring, when guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon announced they were withdrawing from the draft pool.
Florida: Third-year coach Michael White has the Gators way ahead of schedule. Another deep tourney run to follow up last season’s Elite Eight bid is definitely within reach. The Gators look like Kentucky’s biggest threat.
Georgia: The best big man you may not have heard of, Yante Maten, is back for one more season. The Bulldogs won’t hesitate to feed him whenever possible; he led the SEC in usage percentage during conference play as a junior.
Texas A&M: Bouncy forward Robert Williams rated out as one of the conference’s better shot-blockers and rebounders in 2016-17, and he’s positioned for a sophomore leap after turning down a spot in the draft lottery.
The case for Missouri beating out those squads is predicated on Michael submitting a season on the order of what Simmons and Fultz did in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively, when they shouldered big playmaking responsibility, possession loads and scoring outputs to offset suspect suspect supporting casts. That’s not to suggest the Tigers will be a one-man show. Jontay, for one, would acquit himself well as an auxiliary scorer and savvy ball-mover, and Robertson can provide the floor-spacing Missouri desperately needs. (It ranked 333rd in Division I in 3P% last season.)
On the other hand, the Tigers were so dreadful on both ends of the floor last season that perhaps not even a Kentucky-level influx of prep talent, one centered on a virtual all-conference team lock and national player of the year candidate, can lift them to respectability. The SEC is a step down from the top tier of high-major leagues, but there’s enough quality opposition to derail the Missouri hype train soon after it leaves the station. What we do know is that this is very much going to be a Porter-centric operation, whether or not there’s more than one of them in the starting lineup.