COLUMBIA, Mo. – Jordan Barnett sat in his final postgame press conference in Mizzou Arena and rattled off Missouri’s record over the last three years: 8-24; 10-21; 9-23.
“It’s a team and a program that I have seen struggle,” the senior added.
Missouri had hit its low point last year, winning just eight games. When the season came to an end in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, nobody saw the rapid turnaround that was to come.
Not even Cuonzo Martin, who took over the job after Kim Anderson was fired.
The addition of a top-five recruiting class didn’t change that fact either. He thought it would take time.
On Saturday, after his Tigers defeated Arkansas 77-67, Martin sat down at the press conference and reflected on the journey.
Missouri rose from the depths of the SEC to defeat Kentucky for the first time in program history. For the first time since the 2013-14 season, the Tigers defeated a ranked team, won a true road game and beat a conference opponent on the road.
“I’m so happy for our guys. I might not look like it, but I’m happy for them,” Martin said. “Just, they’ve been through a lot. I never understood the emotional fatigue or let down when you struggle in a program or lose for so long. Just the makeup of young guys. I grew up a lot as a coach, because I’ve never been around that. I appreciate the hard work those guys have put in.”
Bigger than all of those achievements is what Saturday’s win gave Missouri – the No. 5 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament. It also makes Missouri a near lock for the NCAA Tournament, although senior Kassius Robertson doesn’t want to think about that yet.
“I’m trying to win the SEC Tournament so there’s no indecision,” said Robertson, who finished with 14 points.
One more accomplishment that shows just how far Missouri has come is its record. With the win, Missouri improved to 20-11 and 10-8 in conference play. It marks Missouri’s first 20-win season since the 2013-14 season.
“To come out this season, just to get our 20th win means a lot,” Barnett said. “But, obviously, we’re not done. We still have a ton of work to do.”
On Saturday, all of the work paid off. Especially for Jontay Porter, who put together back-to-back high-level games.
Porter led Missouri with 19 points and finished with eight rebounds and four assists.
“Coach Martin and the staff have done a great job coaching me and helping me develop this season. It’s starting to show off now a little bit, I think,” said Porter, who graduated high school a year early to join the Tigers.
The Tigers have also weathered numerous distractions. No. 1 recruit Michael Porter Jr. has not played since checking out two minutes into the Nov. 10 season opener. He's been cleared to practice and was a game-day decision Saturday, but he announced in the morning he would not play.
“After two more practices since coming home from Nashville, the coaching staff and I feel that it is in the best interest of the team and myself to not play tonight,” Porter said in an emailed statement. “Coming back from three months without practicing has been a challenge, but it is a challenge that I am taking on every day.”
Porter, a 6-foot-10 small forward, did not rule out playing in the SEC Tournament, though.
The Tigers also saw C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris transfer. Terrence Phillips has been removed from the team amid a Title IX investigation.
The best coach to have in those situations? Martin, Jontay Porter said.
“We’ve gone through a few losing streaks, but he never wavered,” he said.
And they didn’t waver when Arkansas (21-10, 10-8) tied Saturday’s game at 51 with 12:22 left.
Instead, Missouri toughened up.
It went on 16-2 run that saw offensive input by nearly everybody on the team. That was evident in the box score. Barnett finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and Jeremiah Tilmon finished with 17 points. Arkansas was led by Daniel Gafford, who finished with 16 points.
Tilmon and Porter combined for nine of the team’s 16 points in that six-minute run. That was a welcome improvement from the nine points they combined for when the team played in January in Fayetteville.
When Missouri’s freshman bigs are on, Martin said the team can beat anybody in the country.
Arkansas worked its deficit to six points on a Daryl Macon layup with 2:30 left . Instead of break under the Arkansas pressure, Missouri held on for an important win.
“We did a really good job not turning over the ball, inbounding the ball late in the game, which we’ve been struggling with,” Robertson said.
Missouri will open SEC Tournament at approximately 2:30 pm. Thursday against either Georgia or Vanderbilt.
The Tigers' season isn’t over yet. They have much more they want to accomplish, but after Saturday’s game, they were in a reflective mood.
Not many people expected this. Martin definitely didn’t. Jontay Porter didn’t.
Barnett, though. The lone senior scholarship carryover from last year’s roster and a self-proclaimed positive thinker, did.
“I expected the turnaround. We had guys returning who had been through the journey, but we’re also adding young guys who are really good and have always been really talented players. We knew they could help immediately,” Barnett said. “Some of them left, but the ones who have stayed have been really really helpful. (Robertson) coming in, he’s been an extremely big help in terms of scoring, leadership. All the people we had coming in, we knew it would make a pretty big turnaround.”