Missouri's surge proves Haith deserving of national recognition
College basketball's most delightfully confounding story rolled on Saturday night, as Missouri used a game-ending 11-0 run -- and at least one dubious charging call -- to beat back arch rival Kansas, 74-71. The victory moves Missouri back into a tie for first-place in the Big 12 and inches head coach Frank Haith another step closer to possible national coach of the year recognition.
You remember Frank Haith, right? He's the guy whose arrival in Columbia was cheered ... by Miami and Kansas fans. He's the same coach who never finished above .500 in the ACC in seven seasons in Coral Gables. He's the one who was implicated in Nevan Shapiro's bombshell athletics department disclosures as having knowledge of Miami paying $10,000 to lure a player to the school. And he's also the man who lost his best (and, really, only) post defender for the season before he ever coached a game for the Tigers.
And now Missouri is 20-2 overall, 8-2 in the Big 12, ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation this season and in strong position to challenge for a league title, a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs and who knows what else come March's magnificent crapshoot. Now Haith is being compared to Illinois' Bruce Weber, who inherited a loaded roster and took it all the way to the 2005 national title game. Why not? Mizzou's future home, the SEC, is known for national titles, right?
Yes, none of this makes any sense. Or does it?
Before former head coach Mike Anderson left for Arkansas, the Tigers were considered the league favorite, returning a talented, experienced squad that looked to have the chops to take the Tigers' typical home success with them on the road. And the one area in which Haith's Miami teams were consistently decent was offensive execution. In each of Haith's seven seasons, the Hurricanes finished between 30th and 52nd in the nation in Offensive Efficiency, per kenpom.com.
One problem, though. Under Anderson, Missouri ran at every opportunity, wearing its "Fastest 40 Minutes" label like a badge of honor. Under Haith, Miami consistently was one of the slower teams (fewest possessions per game) in Division I. How could this possibly work, especially considering the defensively challenged Tigers would be without Laurence Bowers and were inheriting a coach who based his so-so Miami defenses on an ability to defend inside the arc?
Well, Haith has found a way to allow Missouri to play to its strengths while, thus far, masking enough of the weaknesses to keep winning. The Tigers aren't running at last season's pace, but they're much more up-tempo than Haith's Miami clubs. And, thanks to Marcus Denmon's and Ricardo Ratliffe's fabulous seasons, solid shooters around them and extreme care with the basketball, Missouri is the second-most efficient offense in the nation. That's given the Tigers enough room to mask a decent defense that understandably can struggle to stop foes inside, but doesn't foul and forces enough turnovers to keep the Tigers a half-step ahead.
Can this possibly continue? Can a heretofore mediocre coach and a short-handed cast projected to barely be in the Top 25 at the start of the season be a legitimate Final Four threat? Like almost every team, Missouri will be matchup-dependent in March, and the club that was destroying teams earlier in the year has throttled down its victory margins league play. Winning most of those is a good sign, but will the luck Gods bite them at an inconvenient time -- like, say, in the NCAA Tournament? That said, Missouri's quality guard depth will allow them to dictate to most teams on the perimeter, and if you lack quality ballhandlers? Forget it.
Whatever modest concerns there are, there's no doubting at this point that Missouri is for real. And so are the chances that Frank Haith will be considered the best of his peers for the 2011-12 season. The first development is a significant surprise. The second, given all that came before this, is a complete shock.