Blogger Spotlight: Talking Mizzou hoops with Rock M Nation

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To say Missouri’s had an interesting offseason would be an understatement.

The Tigers – who closed the season by losing five of their last six games – lost coach Mike Anderson to Arkansas, reportedly had Matt Painter convinced to leave Purdue for Columbia, only to watch him stay in West Lafayette (and find out he was supposedly never serious about bolting the Boilermakers) had multiple players declare for the NBA draft, the finally hired Miami’s Frank Haith as their new coach.

And since then, life’s gotten even more interesting for the Tigers, who’ve locked up good prospects, a key coaching assistant and welcome nearly every important  player from last year’s team.

So, I turned to Bill Connelly from Rock M Nation for the latest Blogger Spotlight to help me cover Haith’s first few weeks on the job, Mizzou’s season, its style and its prospects for next season.

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Q: Hiring Frank Haith didn’t wow people – I was in that camp – but he’s already secured solid recruits and made an excellent assistant hire in Tim Fuller. And given his response to the tornado disaster in Joplin, do you think people are looking at Haith differently now?

A: Haith has been nothing but impressive since he was hired. Between the recruiting and his commitment to winning over the state of Missouri, he has pushed all the right buttons. Obviously that won’t matter if he can’t win, but with the roster he has in place for next year, he could build solid momentum with a nice 2012 recruiting class and a nice 2011-12 season.

The biggest thing Haith has going for him, and the reason I’ve been mostly on board from Day One, is simple: it’s been a really long time since athletic director Mike Alden has made a poor hire.  Like, 1999.  Quin Snyder was the last iffy hire he made, and even that one looked like it was going to work out well for about four years.  Alden trusts that Haith didn’t have the support to live up to his potential at Miami, and he trusts that Mizzou will provide him with that support.  Until he actually makes another bad hire (which everybody does at some point), I have no reason to doubt him.

Q: That said, the season hasn’t started. Haith’s Miami teams were never a conference contender and made just one NCAA tournament in seven years. What will the expectations be in 2011-12 given how much experience is on the roster?

A: I think the expectations are, at the very least, another trip to the NCAA Tournament. But with this much senior talent, one would have to figure it would be disappointing if they didn’t at least make the Round of 32.

Q: Early word on what the players think of him?

A: Early word is that the players love him, honestly.  There were extreme concerns that Phil Pressey would be out the door quickly, especially considering his ties to Mike Anderson.  Instead, he is committed to staying, and nobody else left either.  That has to be a good sign.

Q: That does sound promising for keeping a solid player base. Are there indications if Haith will use portions of Anderson’s pressing, up-tempo styles?

A: Haith has announced that he will keep a lot of the up-tempo nature because that’s what this group is built to do. So basically, I see Mizzou attempting to push the tempo after defensive rebounds and turnovers, but I don’t see them pressing very much.  Which is good, really, because Mizzou wasn’t as good at pressing this past season.  Mike Dixon and Phil Pressey are built to run and play offense, but they weren’t built to press.

Q: The 2010-11 season ended abruptly and couldn’t have been pleasant to watch given the highs Missouri hit. What was the ultimate factor in the late losses and general road woes? How do they get fixed?

A: Some teams just peak at the wrong time. It seemed like Mizzou just ran out of energy down the stretch. Obviously Mizzou fans were able to twist that into “The players knew Anderson was leaving!!” or “Anderson stopped coaching!!” but I don’t necessarily believe that. They just lost the edge that you have to have to run Anderson’s system, and it wasn’t fun to watch.

As for the road woes … the Anderson style is not built for road success simply because it is so dependent on how officials are calling the games, and whether they think they do or not, officials favor the home team. So I think Mizzou had this natural tendency to be better than average at home, where they got calls, and worse than average on the road, where they didn’t.  Beyond that, though … again, it comes down to edge and confidence.  Previous Mizzou teams had it away from home, at least more than in 2010-11, and this one didn’t.  Marcus Denmon showed up on the road, either Mike Dixon or Phil Pressey would from time to time, and Ricardo Ratliffe did for a while.  But Laurence Bowers was mostly nonexistent, and Kim English was an absolute detriment.  Hopefully that changes in 2011-12, obviously.

Q: I’m a Kansas grad, so this question comes with the rivalry in mind: Do you miss the days of Norm Stewart poking a stick at Kansas and its fans? I always thought Mike Anderson could’ve used a little more of that. Not just straight up ripping, but having some fun with the rivalry, you know?

A: I’m not as obsessed with the MU-KU rivalry as some — my freshman year at Mizzou, an acquaintance in the dorm told me, in all seriousness, that Mizzou could go 1-27, and if they beat Kansas at home, it was a successful year.  Even then, that baffled me. 

That said … it’s still the biggest series of the year, and Norm really did make the rivalry fun.  He was a unique case — he grew up with the rivalry and in the rivalry; that gave him a unique feel for things, one that Haith probably doesn’t have.  But he’s going to try his best, and if he knocks off the Jayhawks at Mizzou Arena (or, god forbid, Allen Fieldhouse for the first time in 13 years), then Mizzou fans will do the poking-with-sticks for him.

Q: I’m always amazed at the people who want the 1 win over the rival as well. Don’t you want more than just that? Like next year. Missouri should be in good shape to possibly win the Big 12 and make a decent NCAA tourney run. Who needs to be player needs to step up for that to happen?

A: In the late signing period, Haith and company evidently did not find anybody worth spending a scholarship on once Otto Porter announced he was going to Georgetown, which was mostly fine.  Mizzou has quite a bit of depth already, and the biggest immediate recruiting job, really, was to make sure Phil Pressey stayed. 

What this did, however, was leave Mizzou with the bigs they have.  I think that the biggest pressure will be on the main bigs — Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers — to prove that, in less of a run-and-gun environment, they can bang and rebound a bit better.  The Mike Anderson style is always going to result in iffy rebounding numbers to some degree (even in 2008-09, they were average at best in this department), but what happened in 2010-11 was that Mizzou forced fewer turnovers and created fewer easy baskets … and while they didn’t get any worse on the glass than they were the year before, it became more of an issue with the extra possessions opponents were receiving.  We know Mizzou will have a dynamic backcourt, but the frontcourt is still a bit of a question mark.

Q: Favorite Mizzou team of the last 15 years?

A: Honestly, I’ve got to go with 2008-09. t’s probably obvious (it was one of only two Mizzou teams in that span to advance beyond the Round of 32), but the reasons behind it go beyond simply “They were really good.”  After a really, really depressing half-decade of Mizzou basketball, where Mizzou not only didn’t win, but they suffered some embarrassing moments off the court, fan morale was at an all-time low. With both on-court style and personality, that team won everybody back, and then some.  It was the subject of perhaps my favorite post I’ve ever written at Rock M Nation.

Q: How’d you get into blogging? And how much longer do you intend keeping it up?

A: For years, I was writing lengthy posts on various message boards until I realized I hated message boards for the most part, so some friends and I started a little Google Group just to talk amongst ourselves. Then, after about a year of that, the lightbulb went off: I’m reading hundreds of blogs a day … why the hell haven’t I started a Mizzou one yet?  Mizzou Sanity went up the next day, and about eight months later, I was writing for SB Nation with a fellow Mizzou blogger from a different site.

How long do I intend to keep it up?  Until blogs don’t exist anymore, I’m assuming.  If I ever stopped, I’d still be having all the same thoughts running around in my head, and I’d have to get them out somehow, so…why stop?

You can find more of Bill’s writing here and follow him on Twitter @rockmnation.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

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Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

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In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

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The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

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It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.

Virginia upends No. 5 Florida State, 61-56

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Remember back to the season’s opening night? Nearly three months ago? That was when Virginia embarrassed Syracuse in a 48-34 win. That game foretold a lot of the season up to this point for the Cavaliers. Their title-defending team would have the defense that’s defined Tony Bennett’s program while the offense, well, that would be a bit of a struggle. What it did not predict was more Quad 1 wins, as the Cavaliers, despite a dominating defense, failed to rack up another such victory after that season-opener.

Until Tuesday.

Virginia injected some life into its NCAA tournament hopes with a 61-56 win over fifth-ranked Florida State in Charlottesville to pick up a critical victory in an ACC that offers far fewer marquee opportunities than in years past.

The victory was exactly what Bennett’s team needed to help buoy that resume before the start of February. January was extremely rough on them with a 3-4 mark before the win over the Seminoles put them at .500 for the month. With only four chances left against the ACC’s best of FSU, Duke and Louisville, beating the Seminoles at home may not have been an absolute-must for the Cavs, but it sure makes it a lot easier to chart a path to the tournament now, even if it’s still a rocky road, than if they had dropped the game.

Point guard Kihei Clark scored 11 of his 15 points after halftime, changing the game offensively for the Cavaliers with his dribble penetration into the middle of the Florida State defense. He wasn’t wildly efficient, but his ability to get into the teeth of the defense – creating some buckets and free throws for himself and chances for his teammates – provided just enough lift for the offensively-challenged team. His beautiful reverse layup with a minute left gave Virginia a lead it would not relinquish as it closed the game on an 8-0 run.

Mamadi Diakite had 19 points and nine boards for Virginia while Braxton Key had 13 points and nine rebounds.

The loss stops a 10-game winning streak for the ‘Noles, who led for most of the game but could not ever find any meaningful separation. Devin Vassell had 17 points to lead Florida State, which had two shots to tie the game in the final seconds but missed both 3-point attempts horribly. If Virginia can surge a little in the season’s final month, this win won’t be much more than a missed opportunity for the Seminoles, but if it proves to just be a blip on the radar for Virginia, Florida State may have done some damage to its seed line Tuesday.