Every year, about 4,000 teenagers enroll as freshmen at the University of Missouri. Another 75,000 or so babies are born to families in the state. Many of those poor young people are doomed, in the sense that by virtue of their birthplace or their college admittance they will cheer for the Missouri Tigers.
I was both born in Missouri and chose to attend graduate school at Mizzou. I am twice cursed. I don’t remember the Fifth Down Game—I was about to turn three—but I lived through Frank Haith’s tenure as basketball coach and the loss to Norfolk State, the checkered career of former No. 1 football recruit Dorial Green-Beckham and Gary Pinkel’s revelation of a cancer diagnosis days after he’d managed his team through a divisive boycott. Really, even the good moments at Missouri often turn out poorly. In 2007, after its best season in program history, the football team was denied a BCS bowl bid that was given instead to Kansas—which it had beaten two weeks earlier. Quin Snyder, one of the NBA’s most talented coaches who was once the hottest name in college basketball, got his start at Missouri—where he embarked on a crusade of NCAA infractions and left the program in dire straits.
That is to say: I was totally prepared for Tuesday’s news about Michael Porter Jr. In fact, the minute I heard he tweaked his hip in warmups before the Tigers’ opening game against Iowa State, this scenario played out in my mind. Sure, I didn’t consider an L3-L4 disc issue—we Missouri fans are scarred, not clairvoyant—but that night I couldn’t help but explore worst-case scenarios.
And here we are. Porter, a former five-star recruit who had a case to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft, had surgery Tuesday. He’ll be out for three to four months—so until February or March. That’s a nice way to say that the most exciting player in the history of Missouri basketball is finished playing for the Tigers exactly two minutes, two rebounds and two points into his career. (Please, I ask you, do not contemplate the idea that Porter might return to college basketball next year. I will plug my ears and hum R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” It’s too much to contemplate. He’ll still be a top pick even after missing the season.) It’s been five years since the Tigers made the NCAA tournament, and what seemed like a given with Porter, his younger brother Jontay and Jeremiah Tilmon anchoring this year’s team now looks like a stretch. Sure, Cuonzo Martin is a massive step up in the coaching department, but without Porter, the Tigers are going to have to work to find a consistent scoring threat.
Last Thursday, I ate dinner with three friends who also attended Missouri. Because the establishment where we chose to dine did not carry the Pac-12 Network, we weren’t able to watch the Tigers’ game against Utah. We were only able to watch on Gamecast as Tilmon registered his first foul 37 seconds into the game and proceeded to foul four times before scoring a point. The team lost to Utah and then four days later managed to win by only five points over the mighty Emporia State University Hornets. Thanks to that game being broadcast only on a platform known as the SEC Network Plus, many eyeballs were also spared this affront.
That said, this isn’t a lost season—the team looked good against Iowa State and Wagner, even without Porter, and it can be competent thanks to his supporting cast and Martin—but the dream of the Tigers making a deep tournament run and setting the tone for a new era of basketball in Columbia effectively died on Tuesday.
Through four games, two players from last year’s Missouri team are among the Tigers’ top three in scoring: Kevin Puryear (13.3 points per game) and Jordan Barnett (9.0). The team’s second-leading scorer, Kassius Robertson (13.0) is a graduate transfer from Canisius, and suddenly this Missouri team that was supposed to be powered by underclassmen looks a lot like one that’ll rely on veteran talent. With Martin’s experience, it’s possible to imagine the team still taking a step forward, and if Tilmon can control his fouls and Jontay Porter can be even half the player his brother is forecast to be (which he should), this will still be watchable basketball. And that’s all very nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was a horrendous day for Missouri sports.
The football team is bowl eligible, though, after starting the season 1-5. This is very good news, and it’s lovely that the school’s second hiring of a beloved graduate this decade might not end in despair. Missourians, shift your focus back to football! There’s hope!
…Until Drew Lock declares a year early for the NFL draft.