COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Kevin Puryear was fresh off welcoming Cuonzo Martin to Columbia when his attention turned to who might be coming to Missouri with his new coach.
Little did the junior know at that point that his school, the one that had won just 18 games over his first two seasons, was about to put together a Kentucky-like class of freshmen that will hopefully help the Tigers climb out of the Southeastern Conference basement — at least.
It was a class highlighted by the arrival of prep All-American Michael Porter Jr., but that was just the beginning.
One after another, the pieces fell into place for Missouri and Martin. All in all, the Tigers brought in five talented freshmen following last season — Porter Jr., his younger brother Jontay, forward Jeremiah Tilmon and guards Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts.
Suddenly the program decimated by three straight last-place finishes in the SEC feels reborn. And the youngsters have restored hope to a once-proud basketball program, even to the Tigers themselves.
“I was like everybody else, just watching (the signings),” said Puryear, who was second on the team in scoring a year ago as a sophomore. “My first couple of years were rough, so to have some kind of good hype around us instead of the negative talk is good to have.”
Only one of the freshmen five were committed to Missouri prior to Martin’s arrival. Roberts, a 6-foot guard from Texas, had signed with the Tigers during his senior year of high school but was unsure about sticking with his Missouri commitment following former coach Kim Anderson’s firing .
Then Washington fired coach Lorenzo Romar in March along with Huskies assistant coach Michael Porter Sr., the father of the top prep prospect in the country.
Porter Jr. was committed to Washington after having moved to the northwest for his senior season of high school. However, once his father was fired, the 6-foot-10 forward had a good idea that he was headed back home.
The Porter family had lived in Columbia for six years before their move to Washington, during which time Porter Sr. worked on the women’s basketball staff. After he was hired by Martin to return to Missouri, Porter Jr. followed suit — joining his dad and two sisters, who were already members of the women’s basketball team that’s coached by his aunt, Robin Pingeton.
“It’s been awesome, coming back here,” Porter Jr. said. “All of my best friends are here, so it was great coming back and hanging out with them all the time.”
When Porter Jr. wasn’t busy preparing to return home to his friends during the spring, he was working to assemble as much talent as possible with the Tigers. That included convincing another former Washington commit, Harris, to join him in Columbia — along with Tilmon.
Roberts saw the talent arriving and eventually reaffirmed his commitment to Missouri under Martin, but the final piece to the Tigers’ version of the Fab Five didn’t arrive until August.
That’s when Porter Jr’s little brother, 6-foot-11 forward Jontay, reclassified and skipped what would have been his senior year of high school to join his brother and father on the Missouri team.
The result has been an overhauled roster, more-energetic practices and — finally — a sense of hope for the Tigers, who were 8-46 in the SEC over the last three seasons.
“Every college basketball player’s dream is to compete for a national championship,” Puryear said. “We’re trying to go all the way with this thing, and we’re glad to have (the freshmen).”
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