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Late start left Missouri few schedule options

Late start left Missouri few schedule options

March 12th, 2012 in News

Missouri head coach Frank Haith (center) sits with seniors Marcus Denmon (left) and Matt Pressey prior to Sunday's release of the NCAA Tournament bracket.

Photo by The Associated Press /News Tribune.

When Frank Haith was hired at Missouri last April, the upcoming non-conference schedule was pretty much a blank slate. The Tigers were set for the early-season CBE Classic and that was just about it.

Missouri played a lot of soft teams and wound up being the last of the No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament despite its 30-4 record and a Big 12 tournament championship.

A day later, Haith didn't seem to mind.

"Let's move on," Haith said on Monday's Big 12 coaches teleconference. "We're fine. We're excited about where we're at."

Haith said it was actually a scramble putting together the schedule that didn't endear Missouri to the selection committee. Along with some of the weakest opponents in the nation such as Binghamton and Kennesaw State, the Tigers ran into bad luck when traditionally strong opponents such as Villanova and Illinois had down seasons and William & Mary had injury woes.

Missouri's non-conference schedule was ranked a lowly 308th out of 344 Division I schools. Binghamton ranked dead last, Kennesaw State was 331st and other weak links were Navy (327), Southeast Missouri State (248), Niagara (218) and Northwestern State (216).

School spokesman Chad Moller described the situation in April as being "behind the curve," with new staff getting acclimated. And he added, "Scheduling to keep your RPI strong is such a guessing game."

Right after the NCAA bid was announced, Haith complained about a lack of consistency in selection criteria from year to year.

"Whether it's RPI, strength of schedule, your last 10, your road record or conference record or tournament record, no one really knows where the weight is," Haith said. "It surely didn't look like the conference tournament was a factor in this year's committee decision-making."

Two non-conference opponents, California and Notre Dame, are in the tournament. Haith also pointed out that Missouri was 11-3 against teams in the top 50 RPI.

"We felt like we worked hard and deserved a No. 1 seed," guard Michael Dixon said. "But that's something that wasn't in our control, so we can't really worry about that right now."

Given time to reflect, Haith is happy to have just the school's second No. 2 seed in history. Whether he'll attack the schedule differently this spring minus a time crunch is a question for another day.

Misty-eyed and choked with emotion after the Big 12 tourney title, Haith appeared locked in during the teleconference. After getting the news Missouri would play first-time NCAA tournament qualifier No. 15 Norfolk State in the opening round of the West Regional on Friday in Omaha, Neb., Haith said the rest of Sunday night was devoted to preparation.

Opening Friday will give his iron-man roster, just seven deep, time to recover from playing three games in three days in the Big 12 tournament.

"It is tough, there's no doubt about it," Haith said. "We got nicked up there a little bit, but we've got some time off to get ourselves ready. Guys are young and I think we'll recoup pretty fine."

Norfolk State (25-9) won the MEAC conference tournament after finishing second in the regular season, making a huge jump after going just 12-20 last season. Kyle O'Quinn is the conference player of the year and was also the tournament MVP, averaging 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds.

Norfolk State beat TCU and Drexel early and lost to Marquette twice in the span of a week, by 31 points and by two.

Looking ahead, Missouri would face the Florida-Virginia winner in the second round, and perhaps No. 3 seed Marquette after that to get to the West Regional final. Though the Tigers have never made it to a Final Four, they made it to the West final in 1994, 2002 and 2009.

They enter this year's tournament with momentum.

"Tremendous amount of confidence, especially in ourselves," Dixon said. "I think that fuel is going to give us good confidence and motivation going into the tournament."

There's disappointment Kansas, not Missouri, has a shot to play in St. Louis. Kansas is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest. But not too much.

"I guess it would have been easy to travel to St. Louis and see us play in the Edward Jones Dome," said guard Kim English, the Big 12 Tournament MVP. "We're into winning games. It doesn't matter where it is."