Sunday, December 11, 2011

Haith and the Tigers rolling early

Do you remember when Missouri hired Frank Haith to be its men’s basketball coach?

Most people, myself included, were pretty skeptical of the move, which seemed like a second (or third) choice after Missouri couldn’t lure Matt Painter away from Purdue.

Haith went 129-101 in seven seasons at Miami, but his teams had been 43-69 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, and they only made the NCAA Tournament one time in his tenure at Miami.

Sure, Miami is a pretty poor basketball program and a tough place to win, but after Duke and North Carolina at the top, the ACC had plenty of coaching turnover and mediocrity in Haith’s time at Miami. Throw in explosive scandal allegations that surfaced in August about Miami athletics that at least somewhat involved Haith, and there was doubt about the hire.

Fast forward to now. What a difference winning makes. Missouri, 9-0 through Sunday and ranked in the top 10, is one of just nine remaining unbeaten Division I teams. Haith has the senior-laden Tigers playing outstanding basketball at both ends of the court.

Last year, under coach Mike Anderson, the Tigers were all about pressure and forcing turnovers. Naturally, when the gambles didn’t pay off, Missouri would get burned for easy layups. That’s just a by-product of Anderson’s system, but it happened far too often late last season.

This year, Haith’s Tigers appear to making opponents earn their buckets a bit more, playing sound halfcourt defense.

It’s early in the season, but you can see Haith has Missouri’s key contributors playing well. Senior Marcus Denmon is making 53 percent of his shots, including 49.2 percent of his three-pointers. (If he makes his next three, he’ll have made exactly 50 percent.) Fellow seniors Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore have been improved inside.

Another senior, Kim English, often under extra scrutiny due to his charismatic personality, has been having a great early season. Last year was a struggle for English, as he made only 36.6 percent of his shots. This year he’s making 56.3 percent of his shots and looking very comfortable in the offense. He’s also shown skill at drawing charges, which helps compensate for the team’s overall lack of size.

Sophomore guard Phil Pressey has been a dynamic playmaker, setting up his teammates with great passing, often after breaking down defenses with some dribbling. Pressey averaged 3.9 assists last year; this season he’s at 5.7 per game, with slightly fewer turnovers per game.

Again, it’s early, both this for this team and for Haith’s career at Missouri. They do have quality wins, including routs of Notre Dame (with the now-injured Tim Abromaitis) and California in Kansas City and a win over Villanova in New York City.

But the big tests remain, including the neutral-site rivalry game with Illinois on Dec. 22 (8 p.m. on ESPN2), the first true road game, at Old Dominion, and the 18-game conference schedule.

But the very early returns have been good, so Tiger fans can be optimistic about this season, and their first-year coach.

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