Mizzou set for start of SEC play
With the non-conference portion of their schedule in the rear-view mirror and SEC play beginning Tuesday against Alabama at Mizzou Arena, Missouri coach Frank Haith has little to complain about.
His Tigers have lost just twice – a drubbing by No. 2 Louisville and a closely contested overtime loss at UCLA – and own quality wins over VCU and Illinois. They are ranked No. 10 in the latest AP Top 25 poll.
"I'm really encouraged," Haith said. "We're 11-2 and I don't know what we're ranked but we're off to a great start. I think if you would have asked anybody if we could do that with all the guys we lost last year, I'm proud of our players and our staff where they are at, but we have a long way to go."
The Tigers are doing it without a full compliment of players. Haith reminded reporters Monday, "We still haven't had our whole team together expect for two games, South Carolina State and Illinois. Those are the only two games Tony Criswell and Jabari (Brown) played together.
"Now we don't have Tony Criswell and we had to readjust again and really shift our roles again because of no Tony. Earnest Ross is having to change his roll again but that's great for coaching. Hopefully we get Tony back and all our guys and start down that road and continue to mesh."
Brown, a transfer from Oregon, became eligible at the end of the first semester just two games before Criswell suffered a broken finger.
Missouri and Alabama doesn't have quite the same buzz it had when the top-ranked and eventual National Champion Crimson Tide rolled into Columbia for a football game in October. It does however, signal a new beginning for Haith and the Tigers' basketball program.
The Tigers won the Big 12 Tournament last March before leaving the conference and joining the SEC this summer. And after months of film study to become familiar with their new league, Haith and company will begin introducing themselves to their new conference mates starting Tuesday.
"We're excited about getting started in league play," Haith said. "Everybody got started this weekend so we're thrilled to have an opportunity to get it going.
"I think I've prepared myself just like last year, my first year in the Big 12. We watched a lot of tape on these teams this summer to kind of get a feel for the league and how they play."
The biggest differences between the Big 12 and SEC based on what Haith has seen so far?
"I think this league is more of an athletic, up tempo and pressing and we'll see that (Tuesday) night," Haith said. "Teams in the Big 12 didn't press, it was more of a position defense, physical play, pattern offense. When I talk about Alabama offensively, I think the SEC is more attack oriented, dribble drive and stuff like that."
Haith is already familiar with some of the teams in the SEC from his days as head coach at Miami. The former ACC coach recalled winning at both Kentucky and Florida while the lead dog of the Hurricanes.
And both Kentucky and Florida figure to challenge Missouri for the league title. The Wildcats start four freshmen and are just 9-4 on the year but figure to be a contender by the time conference play finishes. The Gators are 10-2 and ranked No. 10 but likely would be a top-5 team if not for a late loss at Arizona.
Other contenders include Ole Miss at 11-2 and South Carolina and new coach Frank Martin at 10-3. Tennessee and Arkansas figure to be improved as well.
Missouri plays a home-and-home with Florida but only plays Kentucky once, Feb. 23 at Rupp Arena. In their debut season with their new conference foes, the Tigers appear primed to challenge for the league title right away. That is, if they can continue to build on their non-conference success.