ST. LOUIS – With 17 minutes and 22 seconds left in the first half of Missouri's SEC Tournament game vs. Georgia here Thursday afternoon, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin spun around and motioned to the bench.
Michael Porter Jr., the long, spindly freshman who might be the best natural scorer in all of college basketball, took his hands off his knees, stood and jogged lightly to the scorer's table. It was the first time he'd checked into a game since Nov. 10, when he left Missouri's season opener 2 minutes into the game with what appeared to be a hip issue. After that came weeks of confusing reports of his medical condition, a back surgery, cryptic Instagram posts, and frenzied speculation among Missouri fans about when – or if – the top recruit in program history would rejoin the team.
As he jogged onto the court, Missouri fans who constituted some 90 percent of the home-state arena erupted in a standing ovation. It was a special moment.
Well, at least Porter and Mizzou faithful got that one moment.
Because the rest of the afternoon was mostly a case of the massive hype leading to a massive disappointment.
Don't get me wrong: You should see clear as day why Porter is going to be a lottery pick in June. The silky-smooth, high-arcing jumper. The finely tuned offensive arsenal, inside and out. The nose for rebounds.
What you couldn't see, after nearly four months without game reps, was actual production.
"When he left the game (in November), he was one of the best players in college basketball," Martin said. "So you don't come back and say, OK, I'm going to fit into a role. His mindset is still the same person. It's just maybe a step slow. Instead of a 40 (inch vertical), maybe 37.
Porter immediately made a layup after he checked in – then missed his next six shots. He ended the game having made only 5 of 17 shots for 12 points, and grabbing eight rebounds. With a bit under a minute left came the high point, when Porter nailed a smooth three to bring Missouri to within a point. But on Missouri's next possession, what would have been a go-ahead 3-pointer clanged off the rim. Missouri lost, 62-60, in what will be Porter's only tuneup for an NCAA Tournament game.
It's not that he looked bad. He just looked rusty. His shots consistently came up short. He only played 23 minutes, but he occasionally looked gassed. His game appeared tentative. As his coach said the day before, Porter was 100 percent healthy. But that didn't mean he was 100 percent back to his best basketball self.
"The biggest thing really was trying to put Mike in position where he could catch and shoot as opposed to having to make plays off the dribble, attacking the rim – because that takes time when you're getting your legs up under you, the adrenaline of the crowd, the energy, all of that," Martin said. "So I was just really trying to put him in position where he's a spot shooter, posting up, making plays at the rim. But because of the lineup situation, we had to put him out there extended minutes due to foul trouble. I thought he did a good job. I thought he did a solid job really just kind of settling in and letting the shot come to him."
Missouri's NCAA Tournament bid is secure, and that is something its fan base ought to celebrate after the past three seasons that amounted to the worst three-year stretch in modern Mizzou history. But this fan base's expectations this season, rational or not, were for more than a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament. This is a team with big-time talent – Porter and his younger brother, Jontay, who was the main bright spot for Mizzou on Thursday, will both be NBA players – and a decent amount of experience. Getting Porter to have his sea legs under him before the NCAA tournament was crucial.
If Missouri is an eight-seed or nine-seed, which is what CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm projects, that will be a terrifying game for any one-seed that has Missouri in its way for a Sweet 16 berth. You're taking a decent team that earned a middling seed and adding Kevin Durant Lite. No, he didn't look like it on Thursday, and Mizzou looked a bit out of its rhythm with a new star player taking so many shots (seven more than any other Mizzou player). But who knows what one game plus one more week of practices will mean for Porter's confidence, and for Missouri's ceiling.
"The good thing about it (is) you had it now, so now he's going through it," Martin said. "Mike is a guy who puts a lot of pressure on himself just because of the shots. You don't have to go back and watch film. I don't think there were a lot of bad shots. I don't. But (the team) will be fine because they've had a chance to play with him. I think, more than anything, because of the foul trouble with some guys, we had to go, and I think we kind of put him in some spots that he probably wasn't used to. But I think we'll be fine. I'm glad he actually got it out of the way and we can move forward."