Wearing Nike T-shirts that read “Just Never Stop,” Kevin Puryear strutted out onto Norm Stewart Court. It was Sunday, Selection Sunday, and the time had finally come.
After losing 68 games the last three years as a member of the Missouri men’s basketball program, Puryear watched with teammates as the Tiger logo appeared on the big screen with MU as an at-large selection. Then, after three regions of the bracket had been revealed, he craned his neck and looked up at the big screen.
There, with cheers of fans echoing across the Mizzou Arena floor, it was announced on TBS: At approximately 8:50 p.m. Friday in Nashville, Tennessee, No. 8 seed Missouri (20-12) will face No. 9 seed Florida State (20-11) in the NCAA Tournament’s West region.
“It’s a tremendous honor for the university given the past we have had,” Puryear said, smiling, “especially given the past we’ve had these last three seasons.”
From 2014-17, Missouri’s men’s basketball program had fallen to the depths of high-major Division I basketball.
Not to mention, it had lost fan support.
Now, just a year later, after the hiring of St. Louis native Cuonzo Martin — who subsequently hired assistant coach Michael Porter Sr. and secured signings from sons Michael Jr. and Jontay — the Tigers will be competing in the field of 68 for the first time since 2013.
“I’m happy for our guys, our staff, our families,” Martin said. “Any time you work hard and you get yourselves in the NCAA Tournament, it’s always a great thing and a great feeling.”
The season did not go as many expected — not in the slightest. Yes, before the season, Missouri expected to make the NCAA Tournament (ESPN’s Joe Lunardi thought MU would, too). But, no, the Tigers did not expect to have to do it without Porter Jr.
As the story goes, the freshman phenom underwent back surgery after playing just more than two minutes in the season opener, forcing a number of his teammates to step up. One of them was Missouri’s leading scorer in graduate transfer Kassius Robertson (16.2 points per game), who had never made the tournament as a sharpshooter at Canisius.
Another was Jontay Porter, who reclassified to play for Missouri. And in a year’s time, with his ability to pass the ball and his ability to hit the 3-point jumper, Porter (10.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists) became a clear leader. His play in Missouri’s final two regular-season games propelled the Tigers to the tournament.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” Jontay Porter said. “I’d say I’m pretty happy with my decision to reclassify.”
Aside from senior forward Jordan Barnett, who is currently suspended after being arrested Saturday morning on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, Missouri players perused their phones before Sunday’s announcement.
Sitting next to assistant coach Michael Porter Sr., Martin smiled seeing Stephen F. Austin — a team the Tigers barely survived against early in the season at home — receive its bid.
When the Midwest region was being announced — the region with Kansas as its No. 1 seed — the Porter brothers cringed and leaned on each other. Turned out, the Tigers would not get another potential crack at the archrival Jayhawks early in the tournament. Instead, Florida State will be the opponent — the game will be televised on TBS — with No. 1 seed Xavier hanging in the balance.
“To be honest, I haven’t seen them play one time this year,” Puryear said of the Seminoles. “I know absolutely nothing about them, and I’m sure some of their players would say the same about us.
“But that’s the beauty of the tournament.”
All year, the goal for this Missouri team has been to make the NCAA Tournament. Robertson said he believes the Tigers will walk into Bridgestone Arena with the loss to Georgia in the second round of the SEC Tournament fresh on their minds.
As for the goal now?
“To win,” Puryear said.
Supervising editor is Pete Bland.