One of the joys of college basketball is just how quickly the national landscape can change in the course of a single year. It seems like every season gives us a team that becomes fascinating overnight by pairing the right freshmen with the right coach at the right time.
UCLA was the best example of this last season, winning 16 more games than the year before thanks in large part to the brilliance of Lonzo Ball. The season before that gave us a team that felt just as intriguing but never reached its potential: the 2015-16 Cal Bears.
This was when Cuonzo Martin pulled one of the great recruiting coups of the decade by bringing in a pair of consensus top-10 freshmen: Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Martin even got Brown to pay his own way to check out campus because he had already used up his five official visits. With Brown and Rabb joining a strong veteran cast led by Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, and Jabari Bird, Cal instantly became one of the country’s most intriguing teams.
For many reasons, it didn’t work out. Wallace was limited by injuries, Brown was inefficient as a go-to scorer, and the team didn’t get much from its centers. The Bears were still a No. 5 seed heading into the NCAA tournament when disaster struck: Wallace and Bird each suffered injuries after the bracket was announced, and Cal was promptly upset by Hawaii in the opening round.
That Cal team feels like the best touchstone for the overnight sensation of the upcoming season: the Missouri Tigers. Martin is again the coach. Michael Porter Jr. is the star freshman and the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. There’s another blue-chip recruit at center in Jeremiah Tilmon. And now we officially know the Tigers have added a third elite freshman in the frontcourt in Michael’s younger brother, Jontay Porter. There’s a reason their father was hired from Washington as an assistant coach.
Mizzou has missed the NCAA tournament the last four years. Last season, the team finished just 8-24. There’s no denying the talent that’s now in place in Columbia. The question is, can they win?
Will Martin go big or small?
The biggest question for Mizzou heading into the season is how Martin will arrange his lineups. His experience with a similar Cal team two years ago could guide him.
You can make an easy argument that Cal failed to reach its ceiling in part because Martin rarely played small. Instead of putting Rabb at the five and Brown at the four, Martin played with traditional centers Kameron Rooks and Sam Singer on the court for the majority of the season. His choice won’t be any easier this year with the makeup of his roster at Mizzou.
With Jontay Porter in the fold, Martin could go with a three-freshman front line of Tilmon, Porter, and Porter. It makes sense on paper: Tilmon was one of the top center recruits in the class, Jontay has the size (6’10, 240 pounds) and shooting ability to act as a stretch four, and Michael has the skill set of a wing. It’s just fair to wonder if this is Martin’s best way to maximize his roster.
It all comes back to Michael Porter Jr., who might be the single most talented player in the country. Martin should do everything he can to put him in the best position to succeed. That’s likely at power forward, and not on the wing, where his athleticism will be able to shine against slower opponents.
Porter probably thinks of himself as a wing, but there’s no question he’ll be slid up the lineup as his career goes on. He looks even taller than the 6’10 he’s listed at. Just look at him next to Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns:
Michael Porter would be great on the wing, but he can be even better at the four. Offensively, at least.
Can a Porter-Porter front line hold up defensively?
With Jontay’s shooting and Michael’s combination of skill and athleticism, the Tigers should have a great offense. Jontay feels like a perfect frontcourt partner for Michael because he can really stretch the floor. He made 43 percent of his threes this season on Nike’s EYBL circuit. All the question marks come on the defensive end.
Asking two freshman to anchor the interior of a defense is a heavy burden no matter how talented they are. Jontay will have to make sure his conditioning is where it needs to be and try to improve his lateral quickness. Michael will have to answer questions about his toughness by becoming a dependable rebounder and adding some supplemental shot blocking. The good news for the Tigers is that Martin always finds a way to get his teams to defend.
The Bears finished in the top 20 in defensive efficiency each of the last two seasons. Putting all that size on the floor has its benefits. The only problem is that Cal couldn’t even muster a top-50 offense with Brown and Rabb in 2015-16. Part of that is because Martin’s teams typically play a slow pace. Part of it is because finding balanced lineups that can compete on both of the floor is the toughest job for any coach.
How good can the role players be?
Mizzou took its lumps with young teams under Kim Anderson the last few years. The upside of that is now the team has some veterans to surround its star freshmen.
Former Texas transfer Jordan Barnett led Mizzou in scoring last season at 12.2 points per game. Now a senior, Barnett will be counted on to add some supplemental scoring alongside the Porters. He can be a major weapon if he can improve his three-point shot after hitting just 30 percent of his triples last year.
Kevin Puryear is another productive veteran. He put up 11.8 points and six rebounds per game last season as an undersized big man. Martin will have to figure out a way to fit him into the lineup with Tilmon and the Porters. There’s also returning guard Terrence Phillips, who averaged 10 points per game last year and shot 35 percent from three.
There are some other intriguing newcomers, as well. Kassius Robertson is a 23-year-old transfer from Canisius who hit 41 percent of his threes on seven attempts per game last year. Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts are freshmen point guards who ranked No. 122 and No. 174 in the class of 2017, respectively.
This is Mizzou’s big chance
If Martin stays at Mizzou, it’s a safe assumption the Tigers will continue recruiting well. It’s also fair to say that it’s never getting better than the roster they have this season.
Michael Porter Jr. could be a generational talent, and he’ll only be at the college level for one year. Jontay Porter is a legit five-star in his own right and a great fit next to his brother. Martin has to regret how things ended with Brown and Rabb two seasons ago at Cal. This is his golden opportunity to make up for it.