Forever at odds: Tigers advance to tournament challenges

After a season of proving doubters wrong, the Tigers look to do more of the same.
After proving doubters wrong throughout the regular season, the Tigers will brace for new challenges in the NCAA Tournament. Maneater File Photo

A couple of hours remained before the Big 12 Tournament championship game inside the Sprint Center in Kansas City and a technician was up on a reddish-orange ladder to make his measurements.

His head was above the hoop, staring down at it. He placed a bubble level over the rim so that the ruler bridged across and indicated an even, unbent surface that couldn’t manipulate the ball going in. He dropped yellow measuring tape to the floor below to find out the hoop was 10 feet above.

This was all before coach Frank Haith and the Missouri Tigers (30-4) finished their historic season.

People talk about the game for how it is won between the lines. People once talked about how Haith and his team would not be cutting any net any time soon.

Early Dismay

The preseason only offered smog to a cloudy crystal ball.

At the start of October, after eyebrows raised at the hire of Haith even more for alleged wrongdoings at Miami in a Yahoo! Sports report, All-Big 12 Conference senior forward Laurence Bowers tore his ACL.

Soon after, Missouri, having just one member over 6 feet, 8 inches, was ranked No. 25 in the AP and Coaches’ preseason poll.

That one member was Steve Moore at 6 feet, 9 inches. Having gotten limited floor time during the past three years, how much could be expected?

But he had prepared all along for more minutes over the summer, when he stayed near campus to work on his conditioning with training personnel.

“I figure I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got now,” he said, referring to what is likely to be his final year of basketball.

Meanwhile, Haith decided that a slender 6-foot-6-inch senior guard named Kim English would assume the role of Bowers’ power forward position in the starting lineup.

So English embraced the new role. While he talked about ways he would master it, the 1,000-point scorer fended off questions pertaining to his mediocre 10 points per game last year.

He repeatedly said last year was in the past. At the same time, Haith, having a prior relationship with English for recruiting him at Miami, talked about the importance of trust.

“Trust is such an important word in building a basketball team,” Haith said. “The biggest thing with Kim is just telling him to be himself. … Just be Kim English."

On Saturday night, Moore once again made plays that were as pleasing to the crowd as they were to the coaches. He had provided effort plays all year. Now he dove on a loose ball. On the other end, he hustled mid-lane to take a pass and throw it down two-handed.

A video montage honoring the champions played overhead while he held Bowers in a hug. A song called “Live Your Dreams” by a band called August Rose played.

“Something in the air strikes and ignites/exploding from a dream into life/Fate begins to sweep across your skin once again.”

English stood nearby, a flashy-turned-gritty guard who has studied the tendencies of his larger opponents on film on his iPad all year.

Hours earlier — before helping to neutralize a long, talented Baylor front line — he had limped off his team’s bus from taking a knee to his quadricep muscle in the game the night before.

“I would’ve played with an amputated leg today,” he said on the court after the game.

And by the end of it all, English lifted the tournament MVP trophy on a stage at center court, surrounded by his teammates.

Afterward, his teammates sat beside him at the post-game press conference, offering up praise.

Sophomore point guard Phil Pressey talked about English being the last one to leave the gym since fall. Junior guard Michael Dixon said English had worked as hard as anybody he knew, wanted it as much as anyone he knew.

“He does a lot for this team that people don’t see on the stat sheet,” he said.

English sat in between Pressey and Dixon at the press conference, modestly accepting the praise with a smile.

“I think we all as people, as human beings, we’re all faced with adversity in our lives,” Haith said. “I think how you handle adversity will determine how successful you're going to be.”

Haith said he’s seen the lessons in his team this season.

“I think this team has had a never-quit attitude,” he said. “We stayed true to the course. There’s no question. … We stayed true to the course.”

Faith in Haith

From a lackluster seven years at Miami, where he never had a winning Atlantic Coast Conference record, Haith carried a philosophy of patience.

He talked about pumping the breaks every now and then. He talked about setting up an offense and focusing on shots and getting stops.

He showed no interest in anticipation. He cared little about any date beyond game day.

The next game was the most important. The way he talked about Kennesaw State in mid-December was hardly any different than the way he talked about Kansas, a game to which everybody else attached high emotion.

He has said the key to this season’s accomplishments has been players buying in. He credits his pupils that believed a blueprint of small requests would make big differences.

“He implemented a system, gave us rules and guidelines,” senior English said. “He created a culture of accountability.”

In front of the media and all the other doubters, Haith’s face has hardly changed. His look has remained rigid, always straight, always portraying business.

But when Haith reached a new pinnacle — when the rainbow-colored confetti began to rain down on the AP Big 12 Coach of the Year after his team’s 90-75 Big 12 Tournament victory over Baylor on Saturday — that face was forced to change.

Raw emotion had taken over to reveal a side of the man the general public never knew.

“Talk to the players,” a tear-filled Haith told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the Baylor win.

After all the players and staff went up a similar reddish-orange ladder, Haith went last to trim away the remaining strips of nylon clinging to the rungs of the rim.

He got up the ladder, looked up to the bright lights overhead and gave a deep breath.

Fans were roaring, chanting “Faith in Haith! Faith in Haith!”

“You know, I don’t know,” he said later that night, struggling to find words. “I don’t really know how I’m supposed to act, I guess. I’m just going to be who I am.”

The Odds Continue

“This time of year is just about lacing ‘em up,” Haith said Sunday at Mizzou Arena after it was announced that the Tigers would be the No. 2 seed in the West Region. “It’s the next chapter. It’s the next season, so to speak.”

But little has changed for him and his team from the start of the season to now. The first doubts came from the committee that pegged them the eighth overall seed in the dance, the first-ever 30-win, major-conference school to not be a No. 1 seed.

“We’ll find ways to motivate us,” Haith said. “I don't know if we’ll use that. There’s a lot of things we can use.”

The serious look was back on his face — the same one he brought to fans when he arrived 11 months ago.

The difference this time could have been seen inside Mizzou Arena before he started talking about preparing for this new season.

Fans loaded one side of the bleachers, listening to their coach talk once again about the adversity that everyone faces in life, imagining him cutting down one more net before the season of madness ended.

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