No. 9 Tigers unbeaten with new coach Haith

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Mike Alden isn’t hearing many complaints these days about his new men’s basketball coach.

Serving as an informal greeter as players bounded out of the locker room tunnel after a win this week, the school’s athletic director was burst-your-buttons proud of Frank Haith and the Tigers. Maybe relieved, too.

The ninth-ranked Tigers’ 11-0 start heading into Thursday night’s annual game against No. 25 Illinois in St. Louis is the school’s best in 20 years, since Norm Stewart was storming the court in his heyday. Missouri cracked the Top 10 on the strength of signature blowouts over Notre Dame and then-No. 20 California and leads the Big 12 in most scoring categories.

All this is masterminded by a man who arrived as the virtually unknown fallback candidate from Miami who failed to make any kind of dent in the Atlantic Coast Conference power structure. And he came to town amid controversy, tailed by an NCAA investigation into sordid allegations surrounding the Hurricanes.

So far, somehow, Missouri has been Haith’s heaven.

“We’ve still got a long ways ahead of us, but we’re proud where we’re at,” Haith said. “We’re pleased where we’re at. There’s no doubt we’ve had some really good wins already.”

Haith inherited plenty of talent from predecessor Mike Anderson and he’s kept things humming. Missouri totaled 77 victories the previous three seasons, is coming off three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and has a senior-laden roster topped by preseason All-Big 12 guard Marcus Denmon, sharpshooting Kim English and electric sophomore guard Phil Pressey.

Reserve guard Ricky Kreklow was the only player to transfer. Brothers Phil and Matt Pressey’s father is former NBA star Paul Pressey, a lifelong friend of Anderson, but there was no thought of leaving.

Senior forward Laurence Bowers, out for the season with a left knee injury, said players knew they had the makings of a very good team coming off a 23-win season, and weren’t about to jeopardize that -- even with a new coach coming in.

“When you have a lot of guys who are used to winning, regardless of whatever comes their way they’re going to persevere,” Bowers said. “Not once did we have our heads down. It’s turned out that he’s a great coach.”

Matt Pressey, one of the top reserves in a seven-man rotation, added: “Our chemistry is better, point blank. Guys came in really focused on what coach Haith was trying to do, and we’re getting it done.”

The wins keep coming, pushing the NCAA investigation at Miami out of sight to many Missouri fans.

Haith spent seven years at Miami before he was hired by Missouri in April. After he was hired, Yahoo Sports released a sweeping investigation into alleged corruption in the Hurricanes athletics programs, citing information from booster Nevin Shapiro, a convicted Ponzi schemer.

Shapiro claimed he paid then-Hurricanes recruit DeQuan Jones $10,000 to attend the school with Haith’s approval. The report by Yahoo Sports includes two photographs of Shapiro with Haith — one at a Miami Beach restaurant and the other showing the pair with Miami president Donna Shalala at a bowling alley accepting what Shapiro said was a $50,000 donation to the school’s basketball program. The website also obtained telephone records showing 85 calls or text messages between the two over a five-year period

In a school-issued statement, Haith pledged to cooperate with the NCAA. “The reports questioning my personal interactions with Mr. Shapiro are not an accurate portrayal of my character,” Haith said then, and he’s keep quiet since.

Alden said he had no idea when the probe would be completed. And he’s more than happy to bask in the glow of Missouri’s fast start.

“You never know,” Alden said, “but I was hopeful. I’m just pleased.”

Kennesaw State first-year coach Lewis Preston has known Haith for several years and his team was Missouri’s ninth victim last week. He said nobody should be worrying about the investigation.

“We need to tip our hats to him and his staff as opposed to always talking about some things down in Coral Gables that, once again, are out of his control right now,” Preston said. “The things that you can control, you control.”

So far Missouri has survived the season-ending knee injury to Bowers by going with a four-guard attack to complement Ricardo Ratliffe’s strong inside play. Missouri is scoring 87 points per game, but unlike previous seasons, in which the school’s game notes referred to the program as the “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball,” it’s not run and gun all night.

There’s still plenty of pressure, but mostly in half-court sets. Haith is in the process of teaching a more responsible style of ball-hawking, with nobody breaking until the ball has been secured on a team that ranked second in the nation in steals last season.

“This was a team that thrived on getting steals. That’s all part of what’s in their DNA from the past,” Haith said. “And I love part of that because we do convert very well, and they’ve got things I do like — quick hands, finish ability in transition.”

Haith sounds a bit defensive over criticism about his underwhelming record at Miami. He was just 129-101 in seven seasons with the Hurricanes with one NCAA tournament appearance, and his ACC record was 43-69.

Haith said that had nothing to do with the perception Miami is a football school and everything to do with the ACC’s lopsided nature. He pointed out he was on the verge of becoming Miami’s second-winningest coach, too.

“Do your research,” Haith said. “There’s only three coaches in that league that have a winning record in that league, and that’s Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and Gary Williams (Maryland). Rick Barnes at Texas. Great coach. Had a losing record in the ACC.”

Matt Painter’s decision to stay at Purdue appeared to have Missouri scrambling last spring. Certainly, Haith’s resume didn’t blow anybody away. Yet part of his appeal to Missouri was a reputation as a strong recruiter, and Haith has familiarity with the Big 12 after assistant coaching stints at Texas and Texas A&M. Haith made a recruiting splash Tuesday when highly touted Jabari Brown, a 6-4 guard from Oakland, Calif., transferred from Oregon. He will be eligible to play in a year.

Though players say Haith is a mentor off the court, he can be a taskmaster on it, perhaps driven by all those years when he was forever running uphill at Miami. He’s getting ready for the Big 12 and taking advantage of all the teaching moments.

Mizzou Arena has been half-full most early season games, averaging 8,400, but school figures show that is a small improvement over this time last season. “Everybody’s not filled this time of year,” Haith said. “I’m pleased, I’m excited. Excited about the energy.”

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