|Despite what people believed entering the season, Haith has picked things up considerably at Missouri. (AP)|
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The point guard weighed 270 pounds.
That was the biggest problem most of the night for Frank Haith. Missouri's coach had successfully defended his coaching ability, his rep, even Kansas in his first season with the Tigers. Now an almost unguardable bundle of basketball trigonometry was threatening to ruin it.
It was senior night Wednesday at Mizzou with all the accompanying tears and cheers. Add to that a bit of post-Kansas hangover left from that magnificent game on Saturday. In the midst of this magic season -- the best one here in two decades -- the Tigers were suddenly riding their only losing streak of the season (two games).
"I don't like pregame festivities," said one of those seniors, guard Kim English. "I just wanted to play."
Haith is a national coach of the year favorite and Missouri is going to the tournament as probably no lower than a No. 2 seed. There are reasons that are gradually revealing themselves, still, after a 78-72 victory against Iowa State on Wednesday: Haith, his connection to his players, and the fact that he can coach better than anyone thought.
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"Everybody has their own philosophy," Haith said. "The way I run our program, the guys have to respect you. They have to know you care about them. They gotta see you in all kinds of lights. They have to see you [beyond] 94 feet on that court. My guys will tell you, I text them. I call them all the time."
He inherited a senior-laden bunch that was ready to mature at the same time. Except it's not that simple. More on that below. Missouri has played conference champ Kansas to its knees twice while otherwise winning everywhere from Waco to Madison Square Garden. We were reminded again Wednesday how it got to that point when Iowa State's Royce White was bringing the ball up.
"They've got one of the toughest matchups in the country," Haith said. "He's a load to guard." White isn't really a point guard, but he's got a handle like one. Sort of a power forward who expanded the job description. He is certainly the biggest reason Iowa State is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years.
Collapse on White and he tosses it out to teammates who have helped the Cyclones average the seventh-most 3s per game nationally. Put a quicker guy on him and White, at 6-8, can drop-step you silly.
If he isn't first-team all-Big 12, the voting will have been rigged.
Basketball is a complicated and layered game. The ninth-place team in the Big East (UConn last year) can win the national championship. Butler can play in back-to-back championship games. But when the opposition's best player goes the last 12 minutes without scoring -- barely touching the ball -- that defies explanation, too.
"We were changing guys," Haith said. "Putting different guys on him, different times down the floor trying to keep him off balance a little bit. That was the key."
Sounds simple. It wasn't. Iowa State led by as many as seven in the second half. With 12 minutes left, White had 20 points, five rebounds, seven assists. He finished with 20 points, six rebounds, nine assists.
Different guys. Different times. Missouri won by six.
The Tigers aren't a particularly great defensive team, but they do great defensive things. Haith trotted out a matchup zone Saturday at Kansas that befuddled the Jayhawks for most of the game.
"We lost in Phog Allen," English told the crowd during a postgame senior night proclamation, "but I wanted you to know it was quiet as a church mouse for about 34 minutes." The Tigers got outrebounded by 11 on Wednesday. But they hang in there. They scrap. Crowd favorite Steve Moore started the second-half comeback bloodying his nose going after a rebound to start a fast break.
That will has to come from somewhere. There has to be a reason that a team with four guards can be this pesky night after night. Post man Ricardo Ratliffe called it the most unselfish team he has seen.
The assertion at Missouri that Haith can't coach is now almost a year old and withered. And stupid. It's taken that long for the country to figure out that Miami's old coach is Missouri's future hope.
"Did it motivate me? Yes, absolutely," Haith said of the criticism. "I'm a hard worker. I pride myself. I wasn't a great player, I wasn't ballyhooed. It was because of my work ethic."
Frank Haith once lived in a gymnasium closet to save money in college. His father sent half of his siblings away -- five of them -- to live with their grandmother for financial reasons when Haith's mother died. Twenty-six wins and a top-10 ranking later, most of us look stupid for not seeing what that foundation had built.
What did Haith have to lose when Missouri called last year? The ACC had been a training ground closer to the beach than any meaningful tradition. The perception was that Missouri AD Mike Alden bailed him, and Miami, out. The good-riddance voices in Coral Gables shouted that Missouri's folly had saved their school a bunch of buyout money.
To say there was doubt about an unproven head coach who was 26 games under .500 in ACC games was an understatement. What is usually a pep rally for a new coach, turned somber as Haith spent his introductory presser explaining just why he was hired.
"I can't control what the people are saying about me," Haith said Wednesday night. "I knew the situation at Miami. I knew the job we did. I knew that team was going to be good this year, too."
Eleven months since that introductory press conference, maybe Haith's greatest compliment came from Moore.
"When I first got here, I wasn't any good at all," he said. Moore might the seventh man in a seven-man rotation -- usually no threat to double figures in any category -- but he's an effective backup to Ratliffe. There might have been eight seniors honored Wednesday, but Missouri doesn't go any deeper than seven. Without Steve Moore, Missouri isn't a national story with a national coach of the year candidate.
Perhaps the biggest argument against Haith getting that honor comes from within the Big 12. Kansas' Bill Self has taken the "worst" team in his nine years at Kansas to the school's eighth consecutive Big 12 title. But who would have put their names in the same sentence at the beginning of the season?
"The best coaching staff in America," English proclaimed. "The best I've had in my four years in college."
He has had only two, but those words carried weight. There was definitely a crisis here last season. Haith inherited a team that had no direction and no structure. English said his team "quit" against Texas A&M in the Big 12 tournament. Veteran players had become disillusioned with former coach Mike Anderson. There's only so many times you can press 94 feet, give up too many possessions and finish 267th in scoring defense (out of 336 teams).
Laurence Bowers, perhaps the team's best player, blew out his knee before the season. Hello, four guards. Hello, seven-man rotation.
The Haith grumbling was just dying down last summer when Haith's name turned up in a Yahoo! Sports investigative bombshell regarding former booster Nevin Shapiro. The story said Haith "acknowledged" a $10,000 payment to a player. Haith says he did nothing wrong.
Regardless, Missouri was stuck. It couldn't fire Haith before he had coached a game. Try not avoiding a lawsuit with nothing proven. The school had to wait for the NCAA investigation to be completed for doing anything.
The governing body said it would expedite the case. We're still waiting.
On the NCAA, not on Haith. He has arrived.