Haith expects a grittier team moving forward

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Frank Haith swallowed an unpleasant dose of truth when he took inventory of Missouri’s 2012-13 basketball season.

“I’m very honest about my team,” Haith said in his office Thursday morning. “We didn’t have that intangible you need to have. That, when adversity hits, we be really tough and overcome things that didn’t go our way.”

The coach’s criticism best explains how a Mizzou team loaded with talent had a 23-11 season that showed flashes of greatness (wins against VCU and Florida) and a pattern of disappointment (seven regular-season road losses to SEC opponents). With time to reflect, Haith acknowledged his team’s fortitude was flawed. And he’s adamant the problem will be fixed before the Tigers hit the court again.

“We weren’t tough enough,” Haith said. “We need to be nastier.”

Haith’s second team at Missouri was stocked with transfers in order to bolster a depleted roster left behind by Arkansas-bound Mike Anderson. He added Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi, who wanted out from under the Huskies NCAA sanctions; Oregon’s Jabari Brown, who never felt comfortable with the Ducks; Pepperdine’s Keion Bell, who wanted to play at a higher level; Auburn’s Earnest Ross, who Haith had recruited previously; and Tony Criswell, who was finished with junior college.

But what Missouri would soon realize is that no one on its team assumed the role of “tough guy” — a term Haith uses to describe a player who thrives when a game is on the ropes, and in doing so inspires teammates to do the same.

“Mike was that guy,” Haith said. “You take that away, and you’re still trying to create that with a bunch of new guys. It became difficult.”

Mike Dixon never stepped on the court as a senior. The guard announced his transfer from Mizzou after it became public knowledge that he had twice, in instances that never resulted in charges, been accused of rape. His departure left a hole in the psyche of Haith’s team.

“It’s amazing how people forget what our team would have looked like if we would have had Mike Dixon,” Haith said. “I remember the articles that came out when we said Mike wasn’t going to be a part of our team. They said we weren’t an NCAA Tournament team. I read every one of those articles.”

While Missouri did make the Tournament as No. 9 seed, it did so without the obstinance of a team destined to make a run. The result was a 12-point loss to Colorado State in the first round. CSU’s Dorian Green exploited Mizzou’s lackluster defense for 26 points, Rams center Colton Iverson pulled down 13 rebounds in 23 minutes and the Tigers left Kentucky with their tails tucked.

“The way we ended it wasn’t good,” Haith said. “And I understand that.”

Whatever it was, it’s now in the past. For Haith, it’s useless to fret over what a previous team lacked. Instead, he says he will work to ensure this year’s Tigers perform better when things aren’t easy.

The basketball coach believes tough guys can be made, and he hopes he can forge more than one by implementing increased competition into all phases of his team’s training.

“You create that competitive spirit,” Haith said. “You make everything a competition. Everything has a score. Everything is competitive. It’s not just going through drills. It’s all about winning and losing, and consequences.”

He hopes the results will be evident.

“No coach wants to say, ‘Man we got out-toughed,'” Haith said. “That’s hard for me to swallow. So, we’re not going to let that happen again.”

You can follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), and contact him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com