Three years ago, it wouldn’t have been the least bit controversial to slot a team with the roster that Missouri has somewhere in the top 25. In fact, the most controversial thing about this preview would have been the Tigers not being ranked higher than 25th.
The difference between then and now is that we’ve seen LSU and Washington load up with a freshman sensation and a handful of other young talent to spread around him, and we’ve seen it not work. In 2015-16 it was Ben Simmons, a season ago it was Markelle Fultz. Both players were supposed to revitalize power-conference programs that hadn’t been in the mix for a Final Four appearance in some time. LSU, which brought in highly touted Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson to go along with Simmons, was even pegged by more than a few college hoops writers as a dark-horse national title contender.
Things worked out well for Simmons and Fultz, who both made the seamless transition from No. 1 recruit in the country to No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. The same can’t be said for the programs they represented for four months. Despite being given a larger-than-they-deserved spotlight from ESPN, LSU stumbled through a 19-14 season in which its players often looked like they’d rather be doing anything but playing basketball. Fultz’s Washington team upped the embarrassment a year later by going 9-22 and producing the worst conference record (2-16) in the history of the program. Both Johnny Jones and Lorenzo Romar have been relieved of their respective head coaching duties, and neither program appears to have a great deal of hope for the immediate future.
So why might things be different for Missouri? Why might the superclass with the superstar produce the immediate and complete turnaround that didn’t happen in Seattle or Baton Rouge?
You can understand the skepticism of college basketball fans when it comes to one recruiting class turning around a team that won just eight games last season and went 27-68 in its last three seasons under former head coach Kim Anderson. But maybe the sample size when it comes to elite freshmen picking “non-traditional powers” is too small. Maybe future NBA stars can find pre-professional success somewhere other than Kentucky or Duke. Maybe those other guys just didn’t have the right pieces.
PG Terrence Phillips, junior
SG Kassius Robertson, senior
F Jordan Barnett, senior
F Michael Porter Jr., freshman
F Jontay Porter, freshman
Key reserves: F Jeremiah Tilmon (freshman), F Kevin Puryear (junior), G Blake Harris (freshman), G C.J. Roberts (freshman), F Cullen VanLeer (junior), G Jordan Geist (junior), F Reed Nikko (sophomore)
How Missouri can succeed: By finding the right chemistry and letting Porter Jr. be the star he is
You got the sense watching LSU and Washington the last two years that by the middle of the season, the supporting cast knew the drill and didn’t like it. They were all aware that the game was of secondary importance to the fans in attendance. They were there to see a future No. 1 draft pick, and if the Tigers or Huskies managed to find a way to win, that was cool too. Everyone, including the stars themselves, seemed annoyed by the phenomenon.
Above all else, this is the mindset that Missouri has to fight off if it wants to be nationally relevant from November through March. The mock drafts and the highlight cuts on YouTube are going to be there regardless of the Tigers’ win/loss record. New head coach Cuonzo Martin has to instill a culture where winning matters. Programs not named Duke or Kentucky who have gone this route can tell you this is easier said than done.
Porter Jr. can do everything, there’s no denying that. He has the size of a center and skill of a wing, and he’s almost certainly going to be one of the first three players selected in next spring’s NBA draft. But unlike Fultz at Washington a year ago, Porter won’t be forced to do it all by himself in 2017-18.
For starters, there’s his younger brother. Jontay Porter’s reclassification and immediate eligibility gives the Tigers another versatile five-star recruit who will be paid to play the game at some point. Toss in four-star power forward Jeremiah Tilmon and four-star point guard Blake Harris, and you’ve got the No. 4 recruiting class in America.
Missouri also brings in talented grad transfer Kassius Robertson from Canisius, a player who averaged 16.1 points per game a year ago and could step right into a starting guard spot. Oh, and it also brings back its top three scorers from last season in Jordan Barnett (12.2 ppg), Kevin Puryear (11.8 ppg), and Terrence Phillips (10.4 ppg).
The talent is there. The task is finding the right combination and instilling the selflessness necessary to make that matter.
How the Tigers could go home early: An inability to defend or play the right style
That Martin coached a similarly skilled team at California just two seasons ago can be viewed as both a negative and a positive. On one hand, Martin’s refusal to go small and emphasize offense has been pointed to by many as the main reason that a super-talented Bears team lost 11 games and got bounced by Hawaii in the first round of the NCAA tournament. On the other, perhaps coaching a team with talent — Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Matthews, etc. — similar to what he’s working with this season gave Martin a better understanding of what he needs to do (also that Cal team was still good enough to earn a No. 4 seed and was mostly done in by injuries and bad off-the-court news that came at the worst possible time).
One of the alluring options that Missouri’s roster provides is the opportunity to play the four-out, one-in style that every level of basketball is currently in love with. Unfortunately for Martin, he doesn’t have a great deal of experience in this field. Fortunately for Martin, he employs a couple of guys who do.
New Missouri assistants Cornell Mann and Chris Hollender both have sterling reputations when it comes to coaching offense. Mann learned about spacing and scoring while playing four seasons for Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State, while Hollender helped guide UMKC to program records for points scored (2,691), field goals made (911), rebounds (1,213), three-pointers (315), and free throws (554) last season. Both should provide a huge help to Martin, whose teams have finished in Ken Pom’s top 20 for defensive efficiency in three of the last four years, but whose teams have also averaged a national rank of 94.7 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
The struggle for Martin will be implementing an exciting new offensive system that delights his younger players while also maintaining the focus on the other end of the floor that he’s always demanded. If he can find a way to accomplish this, Missouri will be more of a national factor throughout the 2017-18 season than most are currently projecting.