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Tigers begin season without their coach

Missouri’s Jabari Brown (right) gets fouled by Central Missouri’s Brennen Hughes while trying to dunk the ball during last Friday’s exhibition game in Columbia.

Missouri’s Jabari Brown (right) gets fouled by Central Missouri’s Brennen Hughes while trying to dunk the ball during last Friday’s exhibition game in Columbia. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — It’s a most unusual beginning.

The Missouri Tigers kick off the 2013-14 basketball season without their head coach when they meet the Southeastern Louisiana Lions at 7 p.m. today at Mizzou Arena.

Absent from the sideline will be third-year head coach Frank Haith, serving his five-game suspension for his role in the University of Miami scandal.

In steps Tim Fuller, temporarily promoted to head coach from his post as associate head coach for the next five games.

“I’m sure there will be nerves,” Fuller said.

Haith oversaw the game-planning and all his normal head-coaching duties until 12:01 a.m. today. That’s when Fuller assumed his new role.

Still, it was Haith in charge of the preparations and the media duties leading up to today.

“I like where our team is headed,” Haith said. “We’re working extremely hard. I’m excited about the start of the season.”

Missouri is flying a little under the radar heading into the season. The Tigers sit 38th and 43rd in the preseason coaches and media polls, respectively, and aren’t included in ESPN.com’s or CBSsports.com’s bracket projections.

“I feel like every time we step on the floor we have to play with a chip on our shoulder because we’re not getting as much respect as I think we should,” said point guard Jordan Clarkson, a transfer from Tulsa.

Tonight will mark Clarkson’s first meaningful game since the 2011-12 season after sitting out his transfer year last season. He’ll be making his first start in place of the enigmatic Phil Pressey, who’s now plying his trade for the Boston Celtics.

“It’s going to feel good getting out there again,” he said. “No butterflies. I’ve been through this a lot of times.”

Top returning scorer Jabari Brown, who averaged 13.7 points per game last season, isn’t too worried about what outsiders think.

“I don’t worry about that stuff,” he said. “You just have to go out and play. Preseason projections are just for the fans to look and and talk smack about. I know I’d rather be in the Top 25 midway or at the end of the season than at the beginning.”

Brown, Clarkson and Earnest Ross (10.3 ppg last season) form a formidable backcourt that appears ready to carry Missouri, at least in the early going while the inexperienced frontcourt gets the hang of things.

“I feel like we are the best backcourt in the country,” Brown said. “That’s just because I’m confident in what I can do and Jordan can do and Earnest. You just have to go out and prove it.”

After losing Laurence Bowers (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rebounds) and Alex Oriakhi (11.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg), the onus is on several newcomers to replace that production in the post.

Johnathan Williams III enters the program as a top-50 national recruit, and has been impressive in Missouri’s two exhibition games. Junior-college transfer Keanau Post has been dealing with an ankle injury but looks likely to grab valuable minutes.

Ryan Rosburg, Tony Criswell — who will miss tonight’s game after being suspended for a violation of team rules — and Stefan Jankovic return as second-year forwards at Missouri.

“We have a lot of faith in our bigs,” Clarkson said. “It’s early and they’re going to make some big improvements.”

Added Brown: “They’re coming along. There will be games (the guards) might have to score a little bit more, but then there might be games our shots aren’t falling and we’ll have to rely on them to get putbacks or feed them in the post and get them going.”

A Missouri squad rife with Division I neophytes isn’t taking Southeastern Louisiana — a team that finished 13-18 a season ago and lost its top two scorers — lightly. Dre Evans is the top returning scorer at 9.3 points, although he did hit 42 percent from 3-point range.

“It’s just taking everybody seriously and having respect for every opponent,” Brown said. “You never want to underestimate anybody. When you do, that’s when you might get beat and slip up.”

As for Haith, who won’t be present but surely will be watching on TV?

“I want to see us compete and treat it like it’s our first game,” he said. “What’s our identity? I think that’s to continue to understand who we are as team and how we want to play. That starts (today).

“We have some good leadership, I want to see that come out. I want to see our guys start to take ownership of our team. I’m excited about going up against somebody else.”

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