Second to one: Tigers claim their highest ranking of decade

The Tigers climbed to the No. 2 spot in the AP Poll following an 89-88 victory over then-No. 3 Baylor.

Junior guard Michael Dixon celebrates a steal and transition layup last week at Mizzou Arena. With a record of 18-1, the Tigers are ranked No. 2 in this week's AP Top 25 poll.

The last time the Missouri Tigers were ranked No. 2, coach Frank Haith was preparing to play them as an assistant at Texas.

When a campaign of national surprise and instant success peaked with a No. 2 ranking in the AP poll Monday -- the program’s highest mark since the 2001-02 campaign -- the first-year coach took a pause to collect just how far the program has come in only his first 19 games.

“Wow,” he said with a sigh, staring into a sea of reporters that has grown much like his team with each passing victory. “Who woulda thunk it?”

Before the season, hype was scarce for the No. 25 Tigers. But after the program’s first road victory over a top five team in 17 years, the Missouri buy-in is affecting more than just Haith’s seven-man rotation.

Prior to the team’s 89-88 upset of then-No. 3 Baylor on Saturday in Waco, Texas, the Tigers had not eclipsed the No. 5 spot in the AP poll this season. They had not beaten a team ranked in the top 15, and they had not won a true road game over a ranked opponent all season.

“You go on the road and beat a team of the caliber of Baylor, it gives (our players) confidence to go out and compete, (knowing) they can compete with most teams across the country,” Haith said.

With the same swagger of consistency that has produced wins in 18 of 19 games this season, the players were considerably less excited about the new number that will appear next to the team’s name.

“I didn’t care when we were 25, I (don’t) care when we’re two,” senior forward Kim English said. “It’s just a number. It’s January. It doesn’t matter.”

Haith was sure to place the ranking into an approach perspective, citing the team’s prominent goals to advance through the NCAA Tournament and remain consistent week to week. The previous week served as a teaching point for Haith, when Syracuse and Duke, both ranked ahead of Missouri, fell to unranked teams.

Haith didn't deny that though players may act like the rankings have no impact, it is a subject they pay attention to.

“It’s a classroom, it’s a time to teach,” Haith said, mentioning he had his players read ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ column on toughness to comprehend national expectations. “With being able to handle adversity, we have to be able to handle the other stuff, too.”

The players did acknowledge the hype has made them a target for the remaining teams on Missouri’s schedule.

“When we go on the road into other people’s court, we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” sophomore point guard Phil Pressey said.

Consistency has been as big of a factor in the Tigers’ surprise start as any through 19 games. With just one hiccup -- a 75-59 loss Jan. 7 at Kansas State -- the Tigers are 18-1 and rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring, shooting percentage and margin of victory.

“They’ve been hungry," Haith said. "They want us to keep feeding them. When guys seek you out to watch tape, that’s when you know you have their attention.”

But the climb doesn't stop with the No. 2 spot in the polls.

“We will get Oklahoma State’s very, very best effort, as we will every night we lace ‘em up,” Haith said of Wednesday’s matchup with the Cowboys in Stillwater, Okla. “We have to be tough enough to be able to handle that.”

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