COLUMBIA, Mo. – Michael Porter Jr. was supposed to leave a lasting impression on the Missouri basketball program when one of the top players in the nation committed to play for the Tigers last season.
Then his brother Jontay was supposed to be the one to do it.
The elder Porter was limited to 53 minutes over three games and ultimately underwent back surgery that ended his college career. Then the younger Porter chose to return to Missouri after a strong freshman season in which he averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, only to tear ligaments in his knee during a closed scrimmage with Southern Illinois a couple weeks before the start of the season.
Now, the Tigers are facing long odds of making back-to-back NCAA Tournament trips.
"Obviously we have other guys you can turn to in (Jeremiah) Tilmon and (Kevin) Puryear," Missouri assistant coach Cornell Mann said. "We have a good group coming back, but we also have a great group of freshmen coming in who are very aggressive in terms of getting the ball every day."
It was probably a smart move for Porter to return, given the 7-footer could have become a lottery pick. But now he faces the prospect of returning again next season, while the Tigers and coach Cuonzo Martin must replace both Porter brothers along with leading scorers Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett.
Tilmon is a bruising presence in the paint who averaged 8.2 points and 4.2 boards last season, while Puryear has stuck around the program through a series of coaching changes. They should give the Tigers, even without Porter, a massive, old-school lineup this season.
"We've always pounded the ball inside. We always had great interior guys," Martin said, thinking back to his days as an assistant to longtime Purdue coach Gene Keady.
"Over the past four or five years the game has been played on the perimeter. Guys really spreading it out and making plays," Martin said. "We can pound the ball inside, and we'll take full advantage of pounding the ball inside, giving it to them in various situations so they can make one-on-one plays."
Part of the reason for that? Martin knows what he has in the frontcourt.
He isn't quite sure what to expect of the backcourt.
Robertson scored in bunches last season, and the Tigers lost fellow guards C.J. Roberts to Texas Tech and Blake Harris to North Carolina State. That left Jordan Geist as one of the few guards with any experience, and a pair of newcomers in Ronnie Suggs, Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson to step up.
Suggs transferred from Bradley, so he has some experience at the Division I level. Watson was a top prospect from St. Louis and Pinson is from Chicago prep power Simeon.
FRESHMAN STAR: Watson will get plenty of attention this season, not only because Missouri needs him to produce but also because he grew up in the state.
"I think it's common for freshmen to have that quote-unquote grace period," Mann said, "but one good thing for him is he's battle-tested physically. A lot of freshmen aren't ready to perform at a high level and I think his physicality and ability to score the ball at a high level bodes well for him."
NCAA DROUGHT: Martin hopes to build on what was a successful first season. The Tigers won 20 games, went 10-8 in the SEC and snapped a four-year NCAA Tournament drought before losing to Florida State in the first round. And they did nearly all of it without Michael Porter Jr.
WELCOME BACK: Mitchell Smith redshirted last season after tearing his ACL, but he should be ready by the start of the season. He averaged 2.4 points and 1.7 boards before getting hurt as a freshman.
MORE HELP: The Tigers added an outside threat in 6-foot-8 wing K.J. Santos, who averaged 7.1 points as a freshman at Illinois-Chicago. He spent last year at Tallahassee Community College before signing with the Tigers to provide backcourt depth. The Tigers also received an NCAA waiver for Illinois transfer Mark Smith, who will be immediately eligible.
SCHEDULE SYNOPSIS: The Tigers open Nov. 6 against Central Arkansas, then head to Iowa State for an early test. They also have non-conference games against Xavier, Illinois and Temple.