COLUMBIA, Mo. – No team in the country has had to deal with more turmoil over the last year than the Missouri Tigers.
Think about this: after a disappointing finish to the 2011 season — one that saw the Tigers end up 8-8 in Big 12 play and back in CoMo after the first round of the NCAA Tournament — Mizzou had not one, but two long and drawn out coaching decisions. After Mike Anderson finally stopped leading Missouri on by accepting the Arkansas job, Matt Painter wavered on his decision before ultimately staying put at Purdue.
Then came the Frank Haith hire and the subsequent barrage of criticism, followed by the flirtation of a couple players with the NBA Draft before, ultimately, July appeared to finally bring the Tigers some continuity.
Or so we thought.
Between the non-stop conference realignment chatter, which eventually culminated in a move to the SEC by Missouri, and the news that Frank Haith may have been involved with Nevin Shapiro, the rogue booster for Miami’s football team, Missouri just couldn’t seem to stay out of the news. And then, in mid-September, senior forward Laurence Bowers tore his acl, leaving Missouri with just three (and now two, after Kadeem Green’s transfer in December) big men on the roster.
Put it all together, and it was just too easy to write the Tigers off.
Yet here they are, sitting at fifth in the country with a 17-1 record after a 70-51 win over Texas A&M on Monday afternoon.
“To a man we all did say were not going to have a senior season like the second half of last season,” senior forward Kim English said. “And to this point we aren’t. We’re really focusing in on one game at a time and thats all that matters.”
At this point in the season, the news cycle is focused almost entirely on the on-court happenings. Discussion about the move to the SEC has been pushed to the backburner, right next to the talk about a potential NCAA investigation into the accusations levied against Haith by Shapiro.
But that doesn’t change the fact that, while they were in the thick of it, distraction was aplenty. When I asked English how many texts and phone calls he got from reporters during that stretch, his answer was simple and telling: “a lot”.
“We preach to these guys we’re about things we can control,” Haith said. “We’re preparing ourselves to go out and play every day, because those things we can control. It’s not about worrying about [stuff in the news], because that’s stuff that they can’t control, the stuff people say and if people talk about you. All you can control is the stuff you do on the court and how you prepare yourself to be on the court.”
Part of what makes Missouri’s situation so unique is that, while they have a new head coach, this is a veteran team. Of the seven players in Missouri’s rotation, five are seniors and one is a junior while Phil Pressey, a sophomore, is the baby of the group. Bowers is also a senior, as is Jarrett Sutton, a fan favorite who thrives in garbage time.
Taking over a team with that many veterans can be a blessing. You don’t need to teach veterans the value of hard work and dedication. You don’t need to develop their skills the way you would a raw-but-talented freshman. Most of these guys will realize just how close they are to finishing up their college degrees and will already know the importance of balancing school work and court time.
But it can also be a curse. Is their loyalty to their former coach? Do these guys have one style of play ingrained in them? Are they willing to adapt to a new system and a new coaching style?
“Its feast or famine,” Haith said after the game. “It can go one of two ways: They had success, so they can either fight you because they are used to doing things a certain way, or they buy in. These guys have bought in to what we’ve done.”
According to Haith, the key for Missouri has been the leadership of English and Marcus Denmon. They set the tone for this team, and getting them on the same page as the coaching staff was the first priority when Haith took over.
“I think its all about leadership. You’ve gotta have great leadership,” he said. “For us to come in and change the mindset of what we want to do with these guys, it had to be Marcus Denmon and Kim English buying in. Because if they don’t, than it can be tough. These guys have bought in, and its because the leadership of those two.”
But Haith had to buy in to his players just as much as they had to buy in to him. Because this isn’t the same Frank Haith that we saw coach Miami. As much as this Missouri team has adapted to his coaching style, he’s adapted his game plan and the system that he wants to run to Missouri’s playing style.
Gone is the 40 Minutes of Hell defense, but Missouri still is a tenacious defensive team, a group that can put stifling pressure on the ball. The Tigers are not a team that spends the entire game running up and down the court anymore, but they are still a dangerous team when they are able to get out in transition. The Tigers may be a group that thrives on executing their offense in the half court, but they also have enough individual talent that they are able to break off a set if they find themselves in a situation where they can get by their man.
“We needed a coach to coach us the right way,” English said. “We needed to have some structure we needed to be held accountable, and we needed to buy in and we did that.”
As much credit as Haith deserves for getting this team to perform in his first season in Columbia, its not hard to read between those lines.
Missouri’s goal this season wasn’t — and isn’t — to be a top ten team.
The ranking is nice, and its a testament to the hard work they put in this summer and the terrific basketball they have played this season, but back in October, no one in the Tiger locker had the goal of being ranked fifth in the nation on January 17th.
“I wasn’t like ‘let’s get in the top ten’. The goal was to get in the postseason,” Haith said. “I never really put a lot of thought into anything other than trying to get these guys better.”
And they aren’t done getting better.
Against Texas A&M, Missouri played far from their best game. They didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, they turned it over far too frequently and if it wasn’t for the spark that Dixon provided coming off the bench midway through the first half, the outcome of this game could have been very different. This comes of the heels of a trip to Ames, IA, where Missouri was able to steal a win from the Cyclones despite hitting just 5-21 from three and seeing two players foul out of the game.
As the saying goes, good teams are able to win games when they don’t play their best basketball, especially on the road. So is that a good sign for Missouri?
“Yeah, it is,” said English, who is not shy about his goal of winning a national title.
“But we haven’t done anything yet.”
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.