As Missouri players settled into chairs for a news conference Wednesday, they could be heard speculating on when the question would be asked. Junior forward Kevin Puryear told a teammate it would be the second question.
It took a bit longer than that before a reporter asked if the players expected freshman star Michael Porter Jr. to play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“I guess that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Puryear said with a smile. He deferred to Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin, who followed the players at the front table.
Martin said Porter will play Thursday in the second round of the SEC Tournament. And if Missouri wins, Porter would presumably play against Kentucky in Friday’s quarterfinals.
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Porter will not start, and it will be hard to say how many minutes he will play, Martin said.
After saying he’d be surprised if Porter played 25 or more minutes Thursday, Martin said, “It’s really what I feel. Flow of the game. Situations. I have nothing in my head saying once we get to these many minutes, that’s it because I don’t think he has that level of injury where I say, ‘OK, he can only play three minutes.’”
Porter, a 6-foot-10 forward, was widely projected as the first pick in this year’s NBA Draft. He injured his back while playing only two minutes in Missouri’s first game. He had surgery and has not played since.
Porter potentially could be asked to play on four straight days in the SEC Tournament. “If he’s healthy, we roll,” Martin said of this work load. “He’s playing. Yeah.”
Martin spoke of Porter being able to contribute in many ways. As a scorer. Defender. Ball-handler. Decision-maker.
“He’s a guy who can play five different positions . . . ,” Martin said. “He brings a lot of dimensions to the game. But he’s a presence on the floor, so you have to identify him.”
On an SEC teleconference Monday, UK Coach John Calipari said the addition of Porter would make Missouri “very, very dangerous.”
Martin dismissed the notion of a problem arising from adding such a potentially impactful player to a team that has established a chemistry, identity and rhythm of play without him.
“No problem at all,” Martin said, “because he’s part of the team. You owe it to him. Just roll from there. So whatever happens, I’m fine with it. If it doesn’t work out, it worked out in my book. I made a decision. We’re rolling.”
On an ESPN teleconference Tuesday, Jay Bilas was asked who was the key player for Kentucky.
“Kevin Knox,” he said. “Kevin Knox has got to be their star. He doesn’t have to pull a Danny Manning or anything because I don’t think he’s going to do that. He has to be good. He has to be consistently good throughout the course of the tournament. I don’t think they’re going to win at the highest level with him having just average games or just OK games. I think he’s got to be very good.”
With that said, Bilas backtracked a bit.
“Look, Kentucky doesn’t have that one guy,” he said. “Very few teams do. But everybody has to play their best for them to advance to where they’re used to advancing as a program.”
Not vintage UK?
Bilas echoed a widely held view that this Kentucky team is not among the program’s best. In fact, he said he’s held that view for months.
“Look, I think I was on record on November 14 saying this isn’t a vintage Kentucky team,” he said. “They’ve done a good job. Kentucky has had a good year. But they’ve already lost 10 games and they haven’t even hit the SEC Tournament yet. It’s not as good as the team has been in the past since (John Calipari has) been there.”
Kentucky can make a run in the NCAA Tournament, Bilas said.
“In Kentucky’s bracket, there are only going to be three, four teams that are better than them,” he said. “Everybody else they should feel comfortable that they’re going to (win) if they play well.“
Vols the favorite
If there is a favorite in the competitive SEC Tournament, it’s Tennessee. The Vols’ four-game winning streak is the longest of any team coming to St. Louis.
“I think Tennessee is the hottest team in the league right now,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said, “and playing probably the best of anybody.”
His colleagues voted Rick Barnes of Tennessee as the SEC Coach of the Year and Vols forward Grant Williams as SEC Player of the Year.