Mizzou’s Porter Jr. returns to practice; Martin unsure when — or if — he’ll appear in a game
UPDATED, 2 p.m.
COLUMBIA, MO. • Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr. will return to practice Friday for the first time since undergoing back surgery in November but Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin is unsure when, or if, Porter will appear in a game this season.
“He will get implemented in practice today and then we’ll go one day at a time,” Martin said Friday at Mizzou Arena. “I don’t really have a timetable after that. It’s just one day at a time.
“At the end of the day the most important thing, as I’ve said before, is his well-being and health and to make sure he’s good to go. It’s one thing to be OK to start a practice. Then you have to go through it. Again, I couldn’t tell you when he’ll step on the floor (in a game), if he’ll step on the floor.”
The Tigers (18-10, 8-7 SEC) have three regular-season games to play, starting with Saturday’s 7 p.m. tipoff at Kentucky (19-9, 8-7). Both teams are among six locked into a six-way tie for third place in the conference. Martin said he hadn’t thought about whether Porter will dress out for Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Porter, the 6-10, five-star prospect, hasn’t played in a game since MU’s Nov. 10 opener against Iowa State and lasted less than three minutes before heading to the bench. He underwent surgery 11 days later. On Thursday, Porter visited his spinal surgeon in Dallas and was cleared to resume practicing.
Asked if Porter will be limited in any kind of drills, Martin said, “We will see once we go through it. I’ll start more non-contact (drills) up and down and see how that goes. Then we’ll progress from there.”
“The most important thing I decide, the doctors and trainers decide, what’s best at the end of the day,” he added. “The health is a factor. To make sure he can go through the grinding and bumping. You’re talking about three-plus months (without playing).
“I think the great thing about it is he’s healthy enough to be out there now. The next part is going through it. After that I couldn’t tell you anything about it until we go through (practices) and I’ll say, ‘He’s good to go,’ whatever that is, if it happens.”
Porter wasn’t made available for interviews Friday, but veteran teammates Kevin Puryear and Jordan Barnett welcomed the freshman’s addition to practice, though with their focus centered on Saturday’s rematch with Kentucky. The Tigers beat the Wildcats for the first time in 11 tries earlier this month.
“To have him on the floor would be a huge asset to our team,” Puryear said. “Everybody in this room knows what he brings to the table.”
“We haven’t had him pretty much all season,” Barnett said. “To get him back practicing would be really nice, but all we can focus on right now is this road trip coming up right now and ultimately trying to get a victory.”
As far as who decides when - or if - Porter plays in a game, Martin described the decision-making process as a collaboration.
“If he’s healthy enough to practice and go through it, bang up and down, run the floor, block out, fall down, take a charge, all those things, then I’ll decide between the doctors, trainers, (strength coach) Nicodemus (Christopher), ‘OK, we’re good? Then we’re good,’” Martin said. “He’s a competitive player. If you say, ‘Play tomorrow,’ he’s playing tomorrow. That’s just his nature. That’s one of the gifts he has. But it’s bigger than just him (saying), ‘I want to play.’ he has to be healthy enough to play, in my opinion.”
Asked if Porter could be in uniform for Saturday’s game, Martin cracked a smile.
“Maybe I should say he’s playing and we’ll get (Kentucky) off balanced,” he said. “I haven’t thought that far into it. Maybe. If it makes him feel good. Yeah, that’s fine if that happens. It could happen. But I haven’t thought about it to that point. That’s why my assistant coaches helps me out so much.”
The Tigers were practiced Friday afternoon in Columbia then were scheduled to fly to Kentucky at 4 p.m.
When Porter was first sidelined in November, Martin didn’t have to change the offense, though the shots and points became more evenly distributed among the team’s top scoring threats, like graduate senior Kassius Robertson, who emerged as an All-SEC candidate and the team’s leading scorer, plus veterans Barnett and Puryear and freshmen forwards Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon.
Martin doesn’t sound worried about the offense readjusting to Porter’s possible return.
“The thing with Mike is he can score the ball,” Martin said. “He can go inside-outside, so it’s not like he’s a big man who can only get it in the post. He can bring the ball up the floor. He can come off a ball screen. He can set a ball screen. He can shoot a 3-point shot. He’s not a guy you have to have a lot of plays for. Because he can make plays.”
With a rebuilt roster headlined by the Porter brothers, plus Robertson’s addition and four-star freshmen Tilmon and Blake Harris, Mizzou was picked fifth in the SEC preseason poll despite three straight last-place finishes. Though once Porter went under the knife his teammates believed those outside expectations faded. And that didn’t sit well within the locker room.
“The outside noise pissed us off a little bit,” Puryear said Friday. “The fact that people thought our season was over with after he got hurt, I think that really upset us. It’s really more to prove everybody wrong. We know what we have in that locker room.”
“As soon as he went down,” Barnett added, “we really had something to prove.”
“We’re not going to deny it,” Puryear continued. “It pissed us all off. Of course, Michael is who is he is. He’s great teammate, a great player. But even he would tell you we have talented group of guys as well.”
That became obvious during the summer, Puryear said, when the mix of holders overs and newcomers reported to Columbia. The upgrade in talent was clear across the board, with one obvious outlier.
“We were just going at it every single day,” Puryear said. “I’d say the only person who was dominating every single day in practice was Michael, because he’s so dominant the way he scores and how dynamic he is.”
Now, after some midseason trimmings, the roster is down to eight available scholarship players - nine if a certain 6-10 freshman rejoins the rotation. Whether or not that happens, the Tigers’ resolve hasn’t gone unnoticed by their first-year coach.
“I think our guys stepped in and what they’ve done up to this point is really impressive,” Martin said, “just to be able to deal with the outside noise of ‘You can’t do this. You can’t be that’ and to excel the way we have. ... To lose games we think we should have won and the pain in the guys, that’s the growth of the program. I’m proud of those type of things. In order to be a champion you have to go through your day to day life and it has to be built to be a champion. You don’t become that when you get there. You became that along the way. Those guys are showing great signs of that.”