'Package Deals' in College Hoops Transparent, But Legit

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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 hot-button 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 three-year, $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."

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October 11, 2017


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