Mis­souri’s Porter pack­age trans­par­ent, le­git

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - FOL­LOW COLUM­NIST DAN WOLKEN Dan Wolken dwolken@us­ato­day.com USA TO­DAY Sports @DanWolken for com­men­tary and in­sight on col­lege sports.

COLUMBIA, MO. Once upon a time, long be­fore the FBI started raid­ing col­lege bas­ket­ball of­fices or ar­rest­ing as­sis­tant coaches, be­fore the sleaze of the sum­mer bas­ket­ball un­der­world was ex­posed in wire­taps and in­dict­ments, few things were as ra­dioac­tive as the pack­age deal.

Go­ing back to Larry Brown hir­ing Ed Man­ning at Kansas in 1983 to get a pretty good big man named Danny, con­tin­u­ing in 2000 when John Cali­pari landed scor­ing prodigy Da­juan Wager at Mem­phis by putting his fa­ther, Milt, on staff and even­tu­ally spread­ing to nu­mer­ous other ar­range­ments at dozens of pro­grams, it was the surest and safest, al­beit most pub­licly con­temptible way to land a star player.

The trans­ac­tion was there for every­one to see, even as eyes rolled and ri­val coaches sighed in right­eous in­dig­na­tion. Fewer than 10 years ago, pack­age deals were such a hot­but­ton re­cruit­ing is­sue that the NCAA even made new rules to make them more dif­fi­cult.

Given what the sport has been deal­ing with the last two weeks, that de­bate seems so quaint. In ret­ro­spect, the ob­vi­ous quid pro quo here — hire some­one to do a job, get a player (or two, or three) along with them — might be as hon­est a trans­ac­tion as col­lege bas­ket­ball could pull off.

“It al­ways has been,” le­gendary sneaker ex­ec­u­tive and grass-roots bas­ket­ball pi­o­neer Sonny Vac­caro said. “It shouldn’t even be ques­tioned. It’s just an­other rule to pre­tend the NCAA is pro­tect­ing re­cruit­ing guide­lines.”

Which brings us to Mis­souri, a pro­gram that has won eight South­east­ern Conference games com­bined over the last three sea­sons but could very well re­turn to the NCAA tour­na­ment and produce the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft next spring in Michael Porter Jr., who ar­guably is at the cen­ter of the most im­pact­ful pack­age deal in col­lege bas­ket­ball his­tory.

When ath­let­ics di­rec­tor Jim Sterk hired Cuonzo Martin from Cal­i­for­nia on March 15, fol­lowed by Martin hir­ing Michael Porter Sr. as an as­sis­tant coach a week later, the domi­noes were in place for Mis­souri to end up not only with Michael Porter Jr. but also his top-25 ranked younger brother Jon­tay, who ac­cel­er­ated his high school grad­u­a­tion to be col­lege el­i­gi­ble this sea­son. Soon af­ter the Porters were on board, cen­ter Jeremiah Til­mon, a top-50 player from East St. Louis, Ill., and top-150 guard Blake Har­ris fol­lowed, in­stantly trans­form­ing a life­less sit­u­a­tion into a pro­gram that was on the verge of sell­ing out its en­tire al­lot­ment of sea­son tick­ets late last week.

“None of those three guys were com­ing here (oth­er­wise),” Porter Jr. told USA TO­DAY Sports last week. “Blake is so good, Jeremiah is so good, my brother is very good. I feel like we have ev­ery piece in the puz­zle to re­ally make a crazy story.”

There isn’t now, and never has been, any pre­tense with Porter that the sit­u­a­tion is some­thing other than what it looks like. A long­time women’s bas­ket­ball staff mem­ber at Mis­souri, where he worked un­der his sis­ter-in-law Robin Pinge­ton, Porter Sr. made the rare move to men’s bas­ket­ball in the spring of 2016 when Lorenzo Ro­mar hired him to be an as­sis­tant at Wash­ing­ton. His fam­ily moved to Seat­tle, and Porter Jr. com­mit­ted to be a Husky.

When Wash­ing­ton fired Ro­mar in March, osten­si­bly mak­ing the Porters free agents, the idea of com­ing home to Columbia made sense, es­pe­cially with two daugh­ters (they have eight chil­dren) al­ready at Mis­souri on the women’s bas­ket­ball team. Though Martin and Porter Sr. didn’t know each other well — they had crossed paths in the Pac-12 and on the re­cruit­ing cir­cuit — com­ing to­gether al­most seemed pre­or­dained.

“Be­cause of Robin, we knew it was a pos­si­bil­ity that it could all come to­gether,” Sterk said. “I was trav­el­ing with women’s bas­ket­ball, and she said, ‘You haven’t seen Michael Porter play, have you?’ I hadn’t, so I pulled up YouTube, and I was in­fat­u­ated with the whole con­cept that it could hap­pen if ev­ery­thing went right.”

Porter Jr. talks com­fort­ably and openly about the idea his fa­ther’s ca­reer is so di­rectly tied to his tal­ent, though he also said he never had any de­sire to play at a Ken­tucky or Duke, where one-and-dones are pushed through ev­ery year like cogs in a never-end­ing ma­chine. Go­ing back home to help re­vive a pro­gram he once watched make NCAA tour­na­ment runs was prob­a­bly an even bet­ter out­come than he could have en­vi­sioned when his fam­ily moved to the Pa­cific North­west.

“I al­ways wanted to do my own thing and be re­mem­bered for years and years in­stead of be­ing just an­other great player to go to an out­stand­ing school,” he said. “I re­ally want to leave a legacy in col­lege.”

Though Porter’s sit­u­a­tion is more trans­par­ent, those kind of com­ments have drawn skep­ti­cal looks across col­lege bas­ket­ball when­ever a top-level prospect es­chews the blue bloods for a non-tra­di­tional pro­gram. Now more than ever, the idea of a coach be­ing a so-called great re­cruiter car­ries a dif­fer­ent con­no­ta­tion in the wake of an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Although a short glimpse at a Mis­souri prac­tice with Porter re­veals a supremely smooth 6-10 scorer who has drawn com­par­isons to Kevin Du­rant, the track record of top-10 re­cruits try­ing to turn around los­ing teams isn’t good. Whether it was Markelle Fultz at Wash­ing­ton, Den­nis Smith at North Carolina State or Ben Sim­mons at LSU, they have largely had to slog through joy­less fresh­man sea­sons, even if it didn’t af­fect their draft stock.

While it’s im­pos­si­ble to as­sess Mis­souri as even a tour­na­ment team, much less a Fi­nal Four con­tender, Porter in­sists the dif­fer­ence for him is both the tal­ent he helped at­tract and his de­sire to play col­lege bas­ket­ball at Mis­souri and not just kill six months wait­ing for the NBA.

“The big dif­fer­ence be­tween Markelle and me is that Markelle didn’t re­ally have a lot of tal­ent com­ing with him to Wash­ing­ton,” Porter said. “We have three or four po­ten­tial pros. So even though this team wasn’t out­stand­ing last year, those guys are older, bet­ter, stronger, and I have a ton of tal­ent com­ing in with me. I just feel like I won’t have to take all the weight on my shoul­ders.”

To their credit, Mis­souri’s re­turn­ing play­ers em­braced the idea of a turn­around, even though it will mean Porter get­ting most of the shots and prac­ti­cally all the attention. They joke that they can’t even go out in pub­lic with him be­cause of how of­ten he gets stopped for pic­tures.

Per­haps the best thing about it, in a year when col­lege bas­ket­ball’s pub­lic im­age is go­ing to ab­sorb a mas­sive blow, is that no­body has to won­der why it’s hap­pen­ing at Mis­souri.

Michael Porter Sr. signed a three­year, $1.125 mil­lion con­tract to be an as­sis­tant coach and brought in­stant bas­ket­ball rel­e­vance with him in the form of his two sons.

Who knows whether Mis­souri will win a bunch of games or fall on its face be­fore Michael Porter Jr. be­comes a lot­tery pick. But given what we’ve learned re­cently about the sport, the idea this kind of ar­range­ment used to be talked about as ev­ery­thing wrong with col­lege bas­ket­ball is laugh­able.

“Coach Porter Sr. is a good man,” Martin said “They have a good fam­ily. His son is a tal­ented player; both tal­ented guys. It worked out. If they frown upon it, that’s on them.”

MIKE DINOVO, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

McDon­ald’s High School All-Amer­i­can for­ward Michael Porter Jr.

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