Last year was supposed to be the year. The year that Missouri men's basketball rebounded from years of misery under head coach Kim Anderson. The year the Tigers would make an Elite Eight or Final Four run. With No. 1-ranked recruit Michael Porter Jr., his younger brother Jontay and one of the best recruiting classes in the entire country, the Tigers had everything they needed to be champions.
And then Porter Jr. injured his back, and Missouri clawed its way into the NCAA Tournament, only to lose in the first round to Florida State.
Missouri's golden son departed for the NBA after one season in Columbia — during which he only played in three games — and leading scorers Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson both graduated. Yet there was a glimmer of hope for the 2018 season. Jontay Porter spurned the NBA Draft for another year in the black and gold. Talented center Jeremiah Tilmon was back and expected to be better than ever. And a well-equipped but unproven set of newcomers was expected to join the Tigers and contend in the SEC. But Tigers fans again got the rug pulled out from under them when the younger Porter, tabbed as a possible NBA first-round draft pick, tore his ACL and MCL on Oct. 21 in a closed scrimmage. The Missouri men's basketball team might be entering a rebuilding year, but here's why you shouldn't give up on them just yet.
1. There are newcomers on the block.
Torrence Watson, a freshman from Whitfield School in St. Louis, chose Missouri over offers from Ohio State and Iowa State. Arguably the star of the 2018 recruiting class, he was ranked as the No. 12 shooting guard in the country by ESPN. He scored 31 points per game in his senior season at Whitfield and pulled down almost seven rebounds a game. With Porter hurt and both Robertson and Barnett gone, Watson will be called upon early and often to provide a scoring punch, whether it be off the bench as a sixth man or in the starting lineup.
Alongside Watson in the backcourt, Missouri will get help from Illinois transfer Mark Smith, who was given a transfer waiver from the NCAA on Oct. 26. Smith was one of Rivals.com's top-60 recruits in the country two years ago, and he should no doubt see plenty of playing time with Jordan Geist and fellow freshmen Watson and Xavier Pinson.
2. The SEC might be the best conference in college basketball.
Even if the Tigers alone aren't enough to impress you, the SEC contenders should. The success of the conference last year surprised fans of college basketball all across the country, as a record number of teams made the NCAA Tournament. Schools such as Kentucky and Florida, no strangers to postseason success, were joined by Tennessee, Auburn, Missouri, Alabama, Texas A&M and Arkansas. The league could be even better this season because of the improvement of traditional bottom-dwelling programs such as Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Auburn.
3. Cuonzo Martin does more with less.
Even with the early disappointment of Porter Jr.'s injury, along with two other midseason transfers, Martin was able to rally his team to win 20 games last year, the first time the Tigers have done so since 2013.
Martin, who grew up just across the state line in East St. Louis, Illinois, helped turn around the programs at Missouri State, California and Tennessee, where he made a Sweet 16 appearance in 2014.
4. A sweet slate of games awaits.
There’s quite a few solid games to choose from this season, with the Tigers hosting Xavier, a No. 1 seed in last year’s field of 68, early in the season, and SEC favorites Tennessee and Kentucky are visiting early in conference play. But if you only have one or two spots available in your busy winter schedule to buy tickets, here are a pair of games you should carve out time for:
vs. Illinois, Dec. 23, 7 p.m.
The annual Bragging Rights game, held in St. Louis, brings a crowd of Missouri and Illinois fans to the city for one night, in what makes for one of the best neutral-site atmospheres in college basketball. Both teams are under head coaches in their second season, with the Illini hiring up-and-comer Brad Underwood from Oklahoma State in 2017. And since Cuonzo Martin joined Missouri, three players — Tilmon, Smith and Javon Pickett — that had committed to or played for Illinois transferred to the Tigers. Tilmon was booed heavily by the Illinois faithful last season, and you can expect the entire trio will get it this season.
vs. Arkansas, Feb. 12, 8 p.m.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is a former Tigers’ head coach, who took the team to three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Arkansas has continued to improve under Anderson, and the two teams split wins last season. As close to a rivalry as a fan can get without the Tigers playing Kansas, this one is sure to entertain.
5. But what about the ladies?
The Missouri men's team might draw more attention and bigger average crowds, but the women's squad — led by senior star Sophie Cunningham — might be the best team on campus in any sport. The Tigers, who upset national power South Carolina a year ago while climbing all the way to No. 11 in the national polls, retain talented guards Lauren Aldridge, Amber Smith and Jordan Roundtree. Missouri has yet to make it past the Sweet 16 under head coach Robin Pingeton, but with Cunningham's historic career coming to an end after this season, 2018 might be the team's best shot.