Tigers riding self-confidence in surprise start

The players’ poise and the coach’s system are creating early success for Missouri basketball.
Senior guard Marcus Denmon jumps into the spotlight during the introductions before the game against Mercer. Denmon and company have surpass expectations and currently sit at No. 13 in this week's AP Poll. Maneater File Photo

Missouri senior guard Marcus Denmon is dead serious when he says he wants everyone to believe his behemoth 6-foot-9, 267-pound senior teammate Steve Moore, sitting nearby, has a three-point shot.

Moore just explained the moment Nov. 22 inside Kansas City’s Sprint Center for the Progressive CBE Championship match against then-No. 18 California when he received a pass from sophomore point guard Phil Pressey at the top of the key. He looked to pass to forward Kadeem Green before defenders barraged the freshman. And so, with 3:46 left in the first half, he pulled up. And it swished.

“I just took a risk and let it rip and luckily it went through,” Moore said.

Denmon interjected.

“Hey, you can make that shot, Steve,” he said, calmly at first. “Seriously, Steve can make the three! People think it’s like a sight to see, but he can make it!”

Before the season tipped off, perhaps there were doubters. After all, skepticism can be expected when a team loses one of its all-Big 12 performers (senior forward Laurence Bowers) for the season and embarks on an unknown campaign with a fairly unknown new coach (Frank Haith).

The No. 13 Tigers have seemingly made believers, defeating every opponent by at least 15 points, including Notre Dame and Cal for the CBE championship en route to a 6-0 start. And the entire team is feeling the energy.

“It’s not the critic who counts,” senior guard Kim English said, quoting Theodore Roosevelt. “We just get better every day. We’re just focused on getting better every day. We’ve earned these wins.”

English, familiar with the critical attention that came after his disappointing season last year, has shined thus far. He leads the Big 12 shooting .625 from the arch, having made 25 of his 40 attempts.

English attributes his success to his preparation. Even when practice ends, he said he won’t leave until he makes an extra 200 shots.

“It adds to your confidence, seeing the ball go through the net,” English said.

English often expresses his comfort with Haith on the sidelines and said his “good friend” Jack McClinton, whom Haith coached at Miami, was right.

“He told me how much he loved playing for coach Haith,” English said. “I went into this experience with open arms, expecting the love to play for coach Haith. And I have.”

The words of praise are mutual between players and their coach.

“This group of guys, they love playing the game,” Haith said. “There’s a fine line in terms of looseness, (but) I want our players to be confident. And they’re an experienced group, so they’re confident. I want them enjoying themselves. The last thing I always say to the guys is to have fun. I want to see them smiling, enjoying the moment and enjoying the opportunity they have to play this great game.”

On a team laden with five seniors in its eight-man rotation, Haith was tasked implementing a different style of play than the “Fastest 40 Minutes” brand that former coach Mike Anderson established before moving on to Arkansas.

Haith’s team has certainly won with its speed. But its efficient offense and gritty defense that has heads turning to the Tigers, who lead the league in both field goal percentage and turnover margin.

“As a coach, you always want to see if your guys are buying in to what you preach to them,” Haith said. “When you take over an experienced ball club like we have, that is a concern, because they’ve done things a certain way for three years. In terms of your teaching, they see it paying dividends because you’re winning. They see the execution happening and they see positive things happening.”

The start might be surprising to many who were sleeping on the Tigers, but not Haith.

“These guys are talented,” he said. “They’re good kids, I heard that before I even took the job. So, I don’t know if I’m surprised by any of this. These guys want to be good. And they’ve bought in.”

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