New challenges await Haith’s Tigers in SEC

ST. LOUIS — It’s never easy for Missouri coach Frank Haith. Exciting? Sure. Full of potential? Absolutely. But for him, a transition between conferences is far from simple.

It’s a scenario the returning Associated Press Coach of the Year faces for the second consecutive season with the Tigers’ move to the Southeastern Conference. Missouri’s membership becomes official in six days, and Haith has marked his program’s change as a new kid on commissioner Mike Slive’s block.

“It’s never easy in terms of what we do as coaches,” Haith said in a teleconference Monday. “In terms of joining the Southeastern Conference, we’re excited about the opportunity to move.”

What a difference a year makes. Haith was a mystery last summer. He was a much-maligned hire after seven average seasons at Miami. He was chastised for his Atlantic Coast Conference record (43-69). He was criticized for his thin postseason resume (one NCAA tournament berth and four NIT appearances). He was judged for the fact that he wasn’t Matt Painter — the Purdue coach who entertained an offer worth a reported $2 million a year from Missouri athletic director Mike Alden before refusing to bolt his alma mater.

Doesn’t that all seem like so long ago? After all, Haith now has history in Columbia, Mo., both good and bad. His first season produced highs (30 victories and a Big 12 tournament title) and a massive low (a shocking loss to Norfolk State to open the NCAA tournament). There was pleasant surprise and deep disappointment.

Haith will build again with the Tigers’ SEC move. The process is never easy, but it’s one he knows well.

“As I left SEC meetings, I knew one thing: We’ve got great coaches and great leadership in the league,” Haith said. “We’re excited about that. Being here one year, I enjoyed the competition we had in the Big 12. We leave one power conference to another. I’m excited about the opportunity.”

It’s a chance to show what was achieved last winter is the start of a trend for Haith’s program. Missouri joins a league that produced only four NCAA tournament bids a season ago, equaling the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. Consider: The Big East had nine, the Big Ten and Big 12 six and the ACC five.

So it’s fair to say Missouri adds depth to its new conference home. The Tigers have reached the NCAA tournament in each of the past four seasons, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2009 under current Arkansas coach Mike Anderson.

“They bring a great deal to the league,” Anderson said. “I think the whole athletic program — what Mike Alden has done over there has been tremendous. I’m proud to say that I was a part of it. . . . You’re talking about another area where recruiting takes place now. There’s the Kansas City market. There’s the St. Louis market. They’ve got good programs. They’ve made NCAA the last four years. They’ve got great tradition. . . . I think it will be great for this area.”

But the Missouri team Anderson and other SEC coaches will see will differ from the one that was among the best in the Big 12 last season. Two players, guards Mike Dixon and Phil Pressey, return from a group that won over most critics with charisma and an attacking style of play.

Gone is guard Marcus Denmon, the team’s heart who led the Tigers with 17.7 points per game. Gone is guard Kim English, the team’s voice who averaged 14.5 points per game and led the Tigers with a 45.9 3-point percentage. Gone is forward Ricardo Ratliffe, the team’s muscle in the paint who averaged 13.9 points per game and led the Tigers with an average of 7.5 rebounds.

But some interesting additions will make their debuts in Missouri’s first SEC season. There’s 6-foot-9, 265-pound senior forward Alex Oriakhi — a transfer from UConn who averaged 7.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in three seasons in Storrs. Former UAB forward Tony Criswell, a 6-8, 226-pound junior, who spent time at Independence (Kan.) Community College, is projected to be a factor down low. Forward Ryan Rosburg, a 6-10, 260-pound freshman, also figures to add versatility.

“They’ve lost a lot, but they had a lot sitting out,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

“I think they make our league better. Clearly, last year they were definitely one of the top five teams from start to finish. I know they were upset there in the NCAA tournament, but I was really impressed with their team last year and the way they played and just how explosive they were offensively. Some of them are gone, but they have got some other guys coming. . . . I think the addition of them to our league with (Texas) A&M is only going to help the SEC.”

Haith anticipates the SEC move helping his program in various ways. He says it will open recruiting options in the Southeast. He says it will expand the Mizzou brand in an untapped part of the country. He says it will give him a chance to rekindle connections in the South from his time at Miami and as an assistant at Wake Forest, where he worked from 1997 to 2001.

There will be challenges too. There’s the issue of distance: Missouri’s campus is an average of 649 miles from other SEC schools. Haith said his team took five bus trips last season, but he envisions none anytime soon.  

It’s a small price to pay for progress.

“You think about our league and the teams that we had, and you add Texas A&M and Missouri, you think about what happens now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Now we start moving up a notch in where everybody is. I think half of our league is going to be in the NCAA tournament.”

Missouri, welcome to your future.