Missouri is up 20 points on Texas A&M in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament and coach Frank Haith is looking down his bench.
The Tigers have this win in hand and will face rival Ole Miss tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. Haith needs to shuffle his rotation to keep guys fresh, especially in a grueling tournament setting. It’s decision time for Missouri’s second-year coach — who stays and who goes?
He walks the southeast sideline of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, hands behind the back of his stylish black three-button suit, shoes catching the spotlights shining from the rafters and watch peeking out from under the cuff of his crisp white shirt.
Phil Pressey, he’s gotta go. Missouri’s point guard has played 32 minutes already and is gassed. With a subtle point of his left index finger, Haith tabs Keion Bell to take his place.
Jabari Brown, Laurence Bowers? Haith knows both have to sit. Bowers’ right knee, the one he sprained in a win over Alabama to start SEC play, is unusually tight. Brown, Missouri’s resident sharpshooter, has played 30 minutes already and will have to compete with Rebel marksman Marshall Henderson tomorrow.
So Haith, still patrolling the sidelines, has a decision to make. It’s the same decision he’ll have to make as the Tigers look to embark on an NCAA tournament run. If Missouri is to make a postseason win streak, Haith will have to look past his typical seven-man rotation and find depth in a well he normally doesn’t draw from — his bench.
He’s already walked past Alex Oriakhi and Bell has gone to check in. Strength and conditioning coach Todor Pandov, busy barking encouragement at Tony Criswell, is next up on his left. Haith keeps walking as the officiating crew finishes reporting Criswell’s third foul.
Finally he stops his methodical step-by-step march, breaking his steely gaze toward Bridgestone’s south tunnel draped in SEC tournament blue and gold.
His choice replacements, forward Stefan Jankovic and guard Negus Webster-Chan, are in sight and Haith windmills his left arm towards them from the elbow down.
The freshmen’s journeys to the floor are pretty direct.
Pop out of your chair and rush by Haith. Unzip the Nike warm-up jacket you put on in the locker room minutes before game time and didn’t expect to take off until you were back in the locker room afterwards. Let the jacket fall to the ground on your way to the table — one of the managers will grab it for you — and tap the padded edge of the counter, say your number, then hit the floor and call out “Bari” or “L-Bo” while hiding your silly freshman smile and trying to act like you’ve been here before. Then play the game.
The trip might sound easy. It’s a 40-foot dash to the table and another 30 feet to their positions on the floor, but neither Webster-Chan nor Janokvic took such a direct path to the Missouri basketball program.
Webster-Chan and Jankovic have been through it all together: from AAU ball to international tournaments to prep school to the end of Haith’s bench. But if the Tigers are to make an NCAA tournament run, their depth, including the play of Jankovic and Webster-Chan will be key.
Webster-Chan likes to say everything happens for a reason, though it’s normally in reference to one of the many turns and travels life has taken him on, allowing a troublesome situation or life decision to slide off his back, to explain why this season he and Jankovic have combined for just 679 minutes in 31 games.
Against Texas A&M, the reason was to eat up garbage minutes to save Brown’s legs and Bowers’ knee.
It might not be the reason the tandem prefers, but for once it shortened their journey to the basketball court. A direct route to the hardwood is the only thing these two have pined for.
Negus Webster-Chan started playing organized basketball in the fourth grade, the same year he met Stefan Jankovic. He learned to play basketball when he was in second grade by throwing a ball into a dumpster that spit the ball back out through a hole in the bottom.
“It wasn’t like real,” Webster-Chan said. “It was just outside basketball. I didn’t know I was good until I seen the eight graders and I thought I could play with them, but the coach didn’t let me.”
Sometimes in grade school in Malvern, a rough borough of Scarborough, Ontario, the school wouldn’t put rims on the backboards on the blacktop, so pick-up games turned into shooting contests on the school’s waste bin.
“My area is a rough area,” he said, glancing down at his 416 area code tattoo. “Gangs, a lot of gangs. It depends what part you’re from in Scarborough. Malvern’s like broken up into different blocks, that’s what it’s like.”
A 2007 piece by renowned Canadian author Don Gillmor nicknamed the city “Scarlem” and described it as “a foil to Toronto for years, the unsophisticated past that Toronto feels it has sloughed off, Jersey to its Manhattan,” in a piece titled “The Scarborough Curse” in Toronto Life Magazine. The piece goes on to describe Scarborough’s widespread violent juvenile crime.
The Canada Border Services Agency even nabbed its “most wanted” criminal there on Christmas Eve, 2012 for arms and controlled substance offenses.
Stefan Jankovic grew up in Missassauga, Ontario, about a 45-minute drive from Malvern. A Toronto suburb of 700,000, it’s the third largest city on the Great Lakes, behind only Toronto and Chicago.
He learned to play ball by what some might consider the traditional way — playing all kinds of sports as a child until one finally was deemed better than the rest.
“I tried lots of sports, but I never enjoyed them,” he said. “As soon as I played basketball, I loved it. So it went from there and if you like something, you’re gonna get good at it, regardless.”
Missassauga is the upscale and multicultural wing of Toronto, where 47 percent of the population natively speaks a language other than English or French.
“It’s nice. Toronto itself is a multicultural city so that was kinda a big thing growing up. I grew up with a lot of culture, a lot of nations,” said Jankovic, an international himself before coming to the United States. Born in the former Yugoslavia, modern-day Serbia, he moved to Canada as a small child. “I liked growing up in Toronto because I’m big on the multicultural scene.”
Missassauga’s unemployment rate is a pleasant 5.4 percent. The University of Toronto started a major expansion of its campus there in 2002. Sheridan College invested in a new $46 million facility there in 2011.
Canadian Business magazine named Mississauga the 11th best place to live in 2012. Scarborough didn’t make the 154-jurisdiction list.
That same year, 2002, when Webster-Chan and Jankovic learned to play ball, they joined their first teams, instantly showing off their athletic prowess that allowed both to achieve in other sports as they got older: Jankovic in soccer, Webster-Chan in volleyball.
Webster-Chan joined the Scarborough Blues, the same youth program that taught the game to the San Antonio Spurs’ Cory Joseph and drew most of its players from Malvern.
His was the team of rugged defiance. If not many people got out of the Toronto subdivision, at least this group would bring home basketball titles.
Jankovic joined the Mississagua Monarchs, pulling players from the comfy but diverse community 50 kilometers — or 32 miles — to the south.
Neither squad liked the other, Webster-Chan and Jankovic admit. Where the Blues dominated the Ontario Basketball Association, Canada’s version of the AAU, the Monarchs were the only team that could challenge them for the title.
“We always beat them,” Webster-Chan said. “They were like our rival team because they were like the second-best team.”
“It was always a rivalry. The games were always close, that’s one thing,” Jankovic adds. “I don’t know if Negus told you that.”
When Scarborough and Mississauga met on the court, elbows found ribcages, knees found thigh bones and arms got tangled up underneath, prompting referees to step into the fray and hand out innumerable technical fouls.
“We didn’t like each other at all. There’d be times when one of his teammates would try to dunk on me,” Jankovic said, harkening back to the days in seventh grade when his friends would throw down windmills during games.
“It was physical, like the Pistons and the Lakers. Like I would push — remember when I pushed Martin that one time?” he asks Webster-Chan. “It was like all physical.”
“Always emotional,” Webster-Chan cuts in.
“We’d always have technicals, fouls, fights, all that,” Jankovic said. “That was for like five years straight.”
Finally the on-court animosity ended when both Jankovic and Webster-Chan took one of their first basketball journeys, one that set them on a course to take their game from Canada to the world’s biggest stage.
The OBA sent its brightest stars to the junior national team’s tryouts for a tournament in Rho, Italy, which meant coaches took players from both the Blues and Monarchs, two of the country’s premier youth programs. Coaches even assigned Webster-Chan and one of his Scarborough teammates to room with Jankovic once they arrived in Rho, on-court feud be damned.
“Me and my Scarborough teammate, we looked at each other like ‘this is gonna be funny’ because we didn’t really like him then, but we had to room with him, there was no changing it,” Webster-Chan said. “So Stefan said a couple jokes in the room, we started laughing and it went from there.”
It didn’t hurt that the Canadians went undefeated en route to a tournament crown, beating teams from Germany, Lithuania and France, among others.
“That’s the first time we were on the same time and we kinda gelled,” Jankovic said. “Before that, I didn’t like him. Like on the plane and all that, we didn’t like each other.”
The duo joined up after the tournament to play on Toronto’s CIA Bounce AAU team to play against American opponents. Then they both left Canada to join Huntington Prep, a powerhouse basketball academy tucked away in Appalachia.
From there, calls from NCAA programs poured in.
Webster-Chan originally committed to play college basketball at Louisville his junior year of high school. After an assistant coach visited one of Huntington’s practices and head coach Rick Pitino watched him play one of his better games in Ironton, Ohio, Webster-Chan committed to the Cardinals the next day.
“Their gym was crazy,” he said of Louisville. “Their facility was crazy. Their atmosphere when I was watching the game, the whole thing was rocking. The whole gym was shaking.”
After all, Webster-Chan wouldn’t be alone. The Cards’ Gorgui Dieng was a Huntington alum and used to come back to the sleepy Appalachian town to visit with coaches and meet new players.
But soon after he declared his intent to play for Louisville, the Cardinals’ coaching staff changed and Webster-Chan backed out to resurvey his options. He said Jankovic is the reason he ever looked at Missouri.
“Stefan had come and we thought it would be kind of cool to do a package deal here,” Webster-Chan said.
Haith started recruiting Jankovic before he was on other Division I schools’ radar. Haith, then coaching at Miami, had an assistant coach watching Jankovic the day he transferred from Kiski Prep in Saltsburg, Pa.
After taking the head coaching job at MU in 2011, Haith stayed on Jankovic’s trail, enticing him to take visit and stay with Laurence Bowers, the Tigers’ star forward.
The two mesh well together. If Jankovic committed to MU, they’d each start in similar places their freshmen years — tall, lean forwards who could post up inside, but step out and knock down jumpshots.
“Stefan, he reminds me so much of myself that I feel like I’m obligated to make sure he knows the ins and outs,” Bowers said. “And he listens. That’s what I like about Stefan; he’s very receptive. He’s a sponge when I’m talking. He’s a great kid and I just love being around him.”
Where Webster-Chan’s offensive game needs some tuning up—he went through a three-week scoreless stretch in January and another in February — Jankovic needs help on the defensive end. On average, he commits one foul every five minutes he’s on the floor.
Those flaws, along with freshman inexperience, have kept the duo off the floor, creating a vicious cycle. How can either gain experience and improve when both aren’t playing?
“I feel like we as freshmen, we still have that killer mentality that came from high school,” Jankovic said.
Webster-Chan puts it in other terms.
“We’re not used to sitting,” he said.
“Freshman year, it’s been hard,” Jankovic adds as Webster-Chan nods his head in the background. “I wouldn’t lie to you. It’s been a lot different than we expected. That’s one thing, but you adjust. You adjust to what happens to you in life. You make life what it is. We’re not playing right now; we’re in the gym, stuff like that. You’ve gotta make every situation the best possible.”
Making the best Thursday night meant Webster-Chan helping Bell beat A&M’s full-court press and knocking down a three in the open court. For Jankovic, it meant bouncing in a layup on the break to seal MU’s 12-point win.
Leaving the court after a win is a much more circuitous route for Webster-Chan or Jankovic. After the buzzer, flip the ball to an official and head to the bench, hand out high fives and get in line. Shake hands with Aggies coaches and players, then make a U-turn and grab a towel from the end of the bench, then linger on the court and wait for teammates before heading back into the dark tunnel.
In the NCAA tournament, the Tigers hope to do the same thing.