November 23, 2011
When Missouri unexpectedly hired Frank Haith as its next basketball coach last May after a failed bid to land Purdue's Matt Painter, many irate Tigers fans wanted him fired before he even coached his first game.
Chances are Haith's approval ratings have increased since then.
Any lingering sentiment Haith was not the ideal candidate to replace Mike Anderson has vanished for now regardless of the new Missouri coach's uninspiring 43-69 ACC record at Miami or his alleged ties to booster Nevin Shapiro. A 5-0 start highlighted by Monday's 87-58 rout of Notre Dame and Tuesday's 92-53 thumping of Cal should force even the skeptics to view Haith with an open mind.
Haith has benefited from inheriting the core of a team that won 23 games last year, yet few thought he'd enjoy this level of instant success.
The combination of a coaching transition and the season-ending knee injury to top big man Laurence Bowers in October led the Big 12's coaches to project Missouri fourth in last month's preseason poll. Now the Tigers have the look of a top 10 team and a Big 12 contender due to their usual menacing defense and a surprisingly structured offense.
Whereas Missouri sometimes struggled to score in the half court under former coach Mike Anderson if its frenetic defense didn't create transition opportunities, the Tigers appeared more capable of executing the past two nights. They're making unselfish passes and getting consistently good looks at the basket thanks in part to the improvement of big men Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe, the reemergence of Kim English and an increased commitment to put the ball in guard Phil Pressey's hands.
Missouri's defense is still predicated on forcing turnovers only they're now typically the product of half-court traps rather than full-court pressure. Regardless, a four-guard look enables the Tigers still to beat opponents down floor with frightening speed and parlay turnovers into transition layups.
If Monday's demolition of Notre Dame was somewhat predictable because of Missouri's edge in speed and athleticism, it was harder to see the stunning margin against Cal coming. Yes, the Bears struggled against a similarly athletic Washington team in a pair of blowout losses last season, but they were an impressive 4-0 entering Tuesday's game and had staked a claim to the title of favorite in the beleaguered Pac-12.
It's clear now that Missouri is capable of overwhelming any opponent that cannot cope with its swarming defense or match its speed getting up court. Whether the undersized Tigers can handle a team like Baylor with more size than them and similar athleticism remains to be seen, but it's clear it would not be wise to dismiss them.