On Tuesday, during the second half of Arkansas’s penultimate regular-season game against Auburn, Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson watched with a grin as Daniel Gafford dominated the rim with a two-hand slam.
Gafford, a 6-foot-11 freshman forward, scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked seven shots in the 91-82 upset win. He has emerged as the Razorbacks’ star late in the season, and it’s showed; Arkansas has won six out of its past seven games.
Although Anderson was asked about his team’s success during a Thursday news conference, he was also asked the question those in Columbia have been asking for weeks: Will Missouri freshman phenom Michael Porter Jr. return to the floor to play for the Tigers?
“We’re planning on him playing,” Anderson said.
Missouri (19-11, 9-8 Southeastern Conference) faces off against Arkansas (21-9, 10-7) Saturday for the second time this season. The last time the two teams played — a Jan. 13 matchup Missouri lost 65-63 — Porter was making his first road trip with the Tigers.
“As far as (Porter Jr.) is concerned, he’ll practice today, he’ll practice tomorrow, and we’ll go from there,” Martin said Thursday. “It really comes down to how Mike feels.
“You’re coming off back surgery and you’re really talking about his third practice (on Thursday). We had a good one at Vanderbilt, so that really helped us and probably helped him some. We’ll go from here. We just want to get the reps under his belt so he can be effective. He knows he’s not going to be at the (highest) level from a conditioning standpoint, but, as long as he feels good, that’s the first thing. And then we go from there.”
Back in September, Anderson — who coached Missouri from 2006-11 — spoke about his history with the highly-touted freshman. Anderson’s tenure in Columbia crossed over with Michael Porter Sr.’s time on the Missouri women’s basketball team staff, so he’d stumble upon a young Porter putting in work at Mizzou Arena’s practice gym.
Oftentimes, Anderson needed said gym, so he had to kick Porter out.
“It just amazes me,” Anderson said at the preseason SEC Tip-Off event. “To see this guy as a young kid and then, all of the sudden, now he’s one of the top players in the country — it’s amazing.”
The same day of Anderson’s comments, the SEC announced its preseason projected final standings. Missouri was projected No. 5, while Arkansas was projected No. 6. Now, with one regular-season game remaining, Arkansas is in the fifth-seeded position for the SEC Tournament, and Missouri is the sixth seed.
When the two teams played in January, Arkansas jumped out to an early first-half lead, largely because of turnovers committed by the Tigers. That statistic will be one to watch Saturday, as will the battle for the post.
Missouri’s freshman forwards Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon excelled in Tuesday’s win at Vanderbilt. The former scored a career-high 24 points. The latter scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds and — this is not a drill — did not foul out.
“We have to make sure we can get those guys up and down the floor,” Anderson said Thursday. “(The game is) going to be won in the paint.”
As a projected No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, per ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, Saturday’s contest is crucial for Missouri. A win against the Tigers’ former coach and his Razorbacks would most likely secure a tournament berth for the first time since 2013, which would be somewhat poetic.
So, too, would Porter returning to play against the coach who had to kick him out of the gym.
Projected starters, Missouri
F Jeremiah Tilmon — 6-foot-10, 252 pounds
F Kevin Puryear — 6-7, 238
F Jordan Barnett — 6-7, 215
G Cullen VanLeer — 6-4, 208
G Kassius Robertson — 6-3, 180
Projected starters, Arkansas
F Dustin Thomas — 6-8, 225
F Trey Thompson — 6-9, 265
G Anton Beard — 6-0, 185
G Daryl Macon — 6-3, 185
G Jaylen Barford — 6-3, 202