Hochman: Exciting times for Mizzou basketball fans | Benjamin Hochman

There will never be a winter like it again.

Sure, there will be other thrilling winters in Columbia, home of Mizzou, AKA “Kentucky Jr.”

But none will match the first, this upcoming winter of 2017-18, a winter that, on a perfect August night, makes one yearn for a full-court press of whipping wind and slushy snow seeping into sneakers, because winter means college basketball — and college basketball now means something again.

No, there will never be a winter like it again, simply because of the way it lines up. Because the team was just so bad, and now could be just so good — new coach, three five-star recruits — an implausible turnaround for a program that, last winter, lost home games to schools that sounded made up.

At 7:54 p.m. on Wednesday, Jontay Porter — a five-star recruit and high-school-senior-to-be — tweeted that he will reclassify, skip his senior year, and play for the Mizzou Tigers.

At 7:59 p.m., Mizzou basketball’s Twitter handle tweeted a GIF of coach Cuonzo Martin, casually sipping a coffee.

Coffee, of course, is for closers.

On Wednesday morning, Mizzou already had the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation, per ESPN.com. Now Jontay Porter is a Tiger, too. Along with his brother, Michael Porter Jr., the No. 1 freshman in the nation.

And Jeremiah Tilmon, who alone would’ve made for Mizzou’s biggest get in years.

And two other top-150 guards. And a junior college transfer who “Jimmy Chitwoods” from 3-point land.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and make a crazy prediction. Or book a hotel in San Antonio for the Final Four. The aforementioned Kentucky, for instance, has an elite recruiting class annually, and the Cats don’t win the title annually. Same with Duke. And if there’s any school (ever, really) to not get hopes up for, it’s Mizzou, the school that lost to Norfolk State and Northern Iowa and Tyus Edney and on the fifth down and the “flea-kicker.”

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But it’s now fair to say that no season will provide these feelings of anticipation and imagination.

“It’s exciting times,” Mizzou legend Melvin Booker, the 1994 Big Eight player of the year, said by phone. “I’ve been watching Michael and Jontay play on the EYBL circuit for years. I just saw Jontay play at Peach Jam in Augusta. I follow the kids closely that Mizzou is looking at. Jontay is a very skilled big guy. I didn’t know what to expect — I’ve seen Michael play many, many times, but not Jontay, so when I saw him in Peach Jam, I was really impressed with how skilled he was. He reminds me of a Marc Gasol-type player. He can pass really well from the high post. He can shoot it from outside. And you can see he has a high IQ.

“I’m really not surprised (he reclassified) — if he wanted to play with his brother, he needed to get there and play with his brother, because his brother is really good and has a chance to get out of there in one year.”

Booker has seen these college dream teams — his son, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, played at Kentucky for one year. And that was the 2014-15 team that went undefeated in the regular season but lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

As for the 2017-18 Tigers, Melvin Booker said, “We still have to be patient. These guys are young. You’ve got to see how everything jells together, because it’s not easy for so many talented players to get together on one team and get it all together. It’s going to take time to mesh, to build that chemistry. But I like what I see so far.”

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But it’s fun to dream, and the cool thing about the Tigers is — even if they didn’t get any incoming freshman, they’d still have a steady team of veterans that probably could’ve flirted with 14 to 16 wins. No, that’s not good, per se. But now consider that the best guy from last year’s team — be it Terrence Phillips, Kevin Puryear or maybe Jordan Barnett — is now arguably the fourth-best Tiger on this year’s team. If Mizzou scrimmaged its freshmen versus everyone else, the freshman would probably win.

And another exciting aspect to the Jontay reclassifying — it really does give Mizzou a fascinating look on the floor. Tilmon can bang in the low post. Jontay can hover. Michael can do, well, everything. Kassius Robertson can drain 3s. And Phillips can feed. This is going to be like high school all over for the point guard Phillips — he played at Oak Hill Academy, the college hoops feeder school that featured numerous NBA draft picks. Shoot, there will be days for Phillips that his job is more like his half-brother’s job — Brandon Jennings is a point guard currently in the NBA.

So now all we can do is wait for winter and suffer through beautiful baseball and shorts and T-shirts and summer beers. But soon enough, we’ll be miserable in the cold, which means it’ll be college basketball season once again, but one unlike any other in this state.

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