ST. LOUIS, Mo. — So much for easing the guy back into college basketball. Five-star freshman Michael Porter Jr., whose entire Missouri playing career before Thursday consisted of two minutes in the season opener, returned from a back injury to attempt 17 shots in 23 minutes against Georgia in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
He only made five of those shots and fifth-seeded Missouri suffered a 62-60 upset loss to the 12 th-seeded Bulldogs. Afterward, coach Cuonzo Martin made no apologies for Porter’s high volume in his first game in 118 days.
“When he left the game, he was one of the best players in college basketball,” Martin said of Porter, the No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2017 and a projected 2018 NBA lottery pick. “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.”
Porter, a 6-foot-10 forward who can score from anywhere on the floor, certainly showed some rust after a 30-game layoff. He started 1 for 7 from the field and finished just 2 of 6 from beyond the 3-point arc — although one of his makes pulled Mizzou within a point with 59 seconds to go.
“Me and my hand are gonna have to have a talk, because it wasn’t working right today,” said Porter after producing 12 points and 8 rebounds. “But all I gotta do is get back in the gym. It was my first game back. I was shooting shots that Coach wanted me to shoot and they’re all shots that I’m capable of hitting, so I can’t hang my head.”
But as he sat at his locker after the loss, swarmed by reporters, Porter did hang his head a bit. He shook it, too, as he pointed out that the Tigers (20-12) beat Georgia by a dozen without him back on Jan. 10 — then lost to the same team with him on Thursday.
“It’s just hard for me,” he said. “But I can’t think that way. I just gotta do what I can to help the team win. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, but the season’s not over. That’s the good thing: We have another game coming up soon and that’s when it really counts.”
Indeed, Missouri almost certainly punched its NCAA Tournament ticket before coming to St. Louis — no small feat, considering Porter was supposed to be the singular savior of a downtrodden program — and will find out its seed and destination on Sunday. Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team would’ve faced Porter and Co. on Friday if not for the upset, noted this week:
“Normally what happens late is you’re losing someone and it’s devastating. It’s hard that way. The other way is just trying to figure out [how to work in the new guy]. They’re playing well; you add Porter to that, all of a sudden they become very, very dangerous.”
That didn’t happen Thursday, when instead the Tigers became very, very out of sync. Other than Porter’s brother Jontay — who had 20 points, 8 rebounds and four made 3-pointers — the offense was a mess. Standouts Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson were a combined 2 of 10 from deep and 4 of 18 from the field.
One might suggest, then, that Porter Jr. torpedoed Missouri’s chemistry. He preferred to see it another way.
“I think there’s a lot of things to build on,” he said. “Besides Jontay, we played horrible offensively and lost by two points, so I think we have a team that can do something special still. We just have to get it clicking.”
For Porter’s part, Martin thinks he probably got a little too hyped up for the debut and rushed his shot, but there was no complaint about shot selection. He also played more than was the plan because of foul trouble for the Tigers.
“I’m glad he actually got it out of the way,” Martin said, “and we can move forward.”
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