Michael Porter Jr.'s return wasn't pretty, but it could've been worse for Missouri

ST. LOUIS — Michael Porter Jr. did not tiptoe back into college basketball after four months on the shelf. Nor did he shirk any responsibility when his much-anticipated return didn’t end the way he had hoped.

After 23 minutes, a team-high 17 shots, 12 points, eight rebounds and a Southeastern Conference tournament upset loss to Georgia, Porter all but blamed himself for the defeat.

“We beat Georgia when I didn’t play,” the Missouri freshman said in the locker room after a 62-60 defeat. “We lost to them when I did. That doesn’t feel good.”

It feels like another chapter in the tortured history of Mizzou athletics, the latest in a decades-long string of disappointments that strongly suggest the Tigers cannot have nice things. They had two minutes of Michael Porter in November and nothing since until Thursday, when he did not magically morph into a program savior at the last minute. Same as it ever was.

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But we can save that melodramatic Missouri fatalism for next week, if the breathlessly anticipated Porter Era ends so shortly after it actually began.

For now, this was simply a trial run gone wrong. He wasn’t even the best Porter on the floor — that was younger brother Jontay (20 points, eight rebounds). There was a give-and-go layup early for his first basket since Nov. 10, and there was a dramatic 3-pointer late that gave the Tigers a chance to win, but in between was a guy who is a long way from peak form.

Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. pulls down a rebound during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia at the Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday, March 8, 2018, in St. Louis. Georgia won 62-60. (AP)
Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. pulls down a rebound during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Georgia at the Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday, March 8, 2018, in St. Louis. Georgia won 62-60. (AP)

Yet while the loss short-circuited the excitement of having the SEC tournament on Missouri soil for the first time — and once again ceded the ticket market to Kentucky fans — that’s about the only drawback to Michael Porter giving this the old college try.

Mizzou can now proceed to the tournament that really matters with some knowledge of what Porter can and can’t do after recovering from November back surgery. And the Tigers can practice together with that basic understanding of what Porter’s role will be when the NCAA tourney rolls around.

He’s not going to be a wallflower. Not going to be a fifth offensive option. Not going to go quietly into that good NBA night without trying to make an impact on the college level.

“You don’t come back and say, ‘OK, I’m going to fit into a role,’ ” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. “His mindset is still the same person. It’s just maybe a step slow.”

You have to respect that — the fact that he’s playing, the fact that he’s assertive, the fact that he’s willing to risk failure, the fact that he’s not simply trying to protect his draft status by sitting out what little figures to be left of Missouri’s season. Michael Porter doesn’t have to play; he wants to play. So let him play and wish him well.

The only downside is whether Porter’s return has altered the Mizzou team chemistry. When the SEC’s No. 5 seed loses to the No. 12 seed in a home environment and scores its fewest points since Jan. 20, it’s a legitimate question.

Leading scorer Kassius Robertson scored just seven points, his fewest in 13 games. Second-leading scorer Jordan Barnett scored only three, his fewest in eight games. Meanwhile, Porter’s 17 shot attempts were the most by a Mizzou player in a regulation game since Robertson shot 18 times against Illinois on Dec. 23.

When only five of those 17 go through the hoop, that’s not ideal.

Still, those 17 shots were partly a product of foul trouble that forced Porter to play more minutes than Martin envisioned. He was on the floor more, and he was open. Let it fly.

“I don’t think there were a lot of bad shots,” Martin said of Porter’s game, and he’s right. Maybe on a couple of drives, which ended up stuffed, the 6-foot-10 Porter tried to do more than he’s currently capable.

But otherwise, the majority of his shots were within the normal parameters of the Missouri offense. A bunch of them simply came up short, which isn’t surprising for a guy who is trying to get his legs back under him after so many months away from competition.

And here is the bottom line: Missouri outscored Georgia by 10 points when Porter was on the floor. Missouri was outscored by a dozen when he was on the bench.

Porter estimated that he was probably playing at 65 percent of his capability Thursday. He banged around some, but also refrained from throwing his body around like a wild man. He wasn’t jumping over Bulldogs inside and wasn’t slashing past them outside.

“The explosiveness, the pop,” he said, “I knew that wasn’t there. I missed some shots I should have made. But now I’ve got a whole other week to get even more healthy.”

That’s the thing: This was merely a low-risk prelude for the NCAA tourney. That’s what matters, and getting Michael Porter back on the floor now is better than trotting him out for the first time in the Big Dance.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Martin said. “I’m glad he actually got it out of the way and we can move forward.”

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