COLUMBIA, Mo. – Two minutes into Frank Haith’s address Friday, the Missouri coach set the record straight. There were some things about the Tigers’ upcoming hop across the Atlantic Ocean that had to be said – before he went on about European food and chemistry-building and basketball business – and he wanted to take care of his message’s meat early in the news conference. He wanted everyone to know where he stood on guard Phil Pressey and forward Laurence Bowers.
“Before I let the guys talk, let me say – so they don’t say something they shouldn’t say – we are a little banged up,” Haith said, after Pressey and Bowers were asked about their health. “Phil banged knees the other day, which ended up being a blessing from my perspective. Now I don’t have to listen to him gnaw at me the whole time about putting him back into the game. My plan was for him not to play very much anyway. … Laurence, you’ll see that he’s practicing. He’s full-go. I see no value (in him playing) in that either.”
So yes, per coach’s orders, the Tigers will be far from full-flex when they begin a five-game, 10-day European tour Aug. 8 without two stars who figure to be cogs in the team’s attempt to turn one stellar season under Haith into a pair next winter. That verdict was fine by the coach, who played the role of stuffy headmaster in his players’ buzzkill.
“They both will tell you they want to play, and they’re still talking about it,” Haith said. “But that’s not going to happen.”
Pressey and Bowers, sitting to Haith’s right at a table in Mizzou Arena, managed strained smiles. There was disappointment. There was no going back. They knew it. Guys, take your victories where you can claim them.
But Haith hopes there are plenty of W’s coming black and gold’s way in the Tigers’ first Southeastern Conference season. That’s why he has chosen to stash two of his best assets during Missouri’s hop around the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Losing either during the late-summer excursion would cause the returning Associated Press Coach of the Year to fill the Seine River with his tears.
A quick resume check shows why. Pressey, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior, averaged a career-high 10.3 points and a Big 12-best 6.4 assists per game last season. Bowers, a 6-8, 227-pound senior, watched Missouri’s run in street clothes last year after tearing the ACL in his left knee during early season workouts; he was named an All-Big 12 honorable mention selection the previous campaign.
Preservation now. Payoff later.
“I feel like from a defensive standpoint, this team right here has a chance to be really great,” Bowers said. “We have a lot of different athletes on the team – our ‘2’ and ‘3’ guards are great rebounders and can really defend, along with (senior guard) Mike (Dixon) and Phil. You know what you are going to get out of them. And then you have a guy like (senior forward) Alex Oriakhi, who cleans up the glass and blocks a lot of shots. I feel like, defensively, we have a chance to be great. There’s no doubt we have a lot of talent. We’re using these 10 practices and this European trip to build chemistry.”
No doubt, the Tigers will build chemistry while logging frequent-flyer miles. They return a scant three players (Pressey, Bowers and Dixon) from a group that went an eyebrow-raising 30-5 last season in Haith’s first go-around in Columbia, Mo. They claimed the program’s second Big 12 tournament title. They were in the debate for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, before being slotted as a No. 2 prior to becoming an infamous trivia answer after losing to Norfolk State in the opener.
But this international jaunt is about working toward the future, not revisiting the past, and Haith will form impressions about his new team between playing tourist at sites like the Van Gogh Museum, the Belfry Tower and the Louvre. He called last year’s squad “cohesive,” but he’s eager about his upcoming depth. The roster includes the three returning players, four four-year transfers on scholarship and a class of five available newcomers.
Oriakhi, a transfer from UConn, has snatched most of the headlines this offseason. Pressey, like many of his teammates, is eager to see a deeper, meaner Mizzou.
“It’s just a joy to be able to play with him again,” Pressey said of Oriakhi. “We played together when we were younger, on AAU and did well there. I know what he can bring to the table, and I’m happy that he can help us out and have a successful year.”
Haith is happy to have the new toys as well. But what will he do with all of them?
The coach anticipates using a mix of lineup combinations in Europe. He said his plan could vary with each game, but even now, he hasn’t given much thought to his first Starting Five.
“We look at this team, our versatility is the strength,” Haith said. “Like (junior guard) Earnest Ross, depending on who we play, if we throw him in at the ‘4,’ that could be a matchup problem for somebody. … We could do a lot of different things. I like that. As a challenge, I think it’s exciting for us as a coaching staff.”
Missouri’s European trek will provide that challenge – even without Pressey and Bowers on the court.