Postseason preview: Missouri Tigers
The surprise continues. What was supposed to be an uncertain season under first-year coach Frank Haith has turned into one of the most successful in program history.
His hiring last April was met with skepticism from a fan base that was unimpressed with the former Miami coach's mediocre resume. A 43-69 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with four NIT appearances and one NCAA tournament berth, made most wonder whether Missouri's program could build on the progress it enjoyed under former coach Mike Anderson, who produced three NCAA tournament berths in his last three seasons before leaving to replace John Pelphrey at Arkansas.
But since he arrived in Columbia, Haith has quieted critics by molding the Tigers into one of the nation's elite teams. He did it by improving chemistry within a fractured program and demanding more from floor leaders.
As a result, positive results followed.
Senior guard Marcus Denmon had 10 games of at least 20 points in the regular season, and senior guard Kim English improved his shooting touch to complement his charismatic personality. Meanwhile, senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe became a strong inside presence. And senior center Steve Moore filled in well in place of senior forward Laurence Bowers, who missed the season after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a pickup game in October.
The turnaround under Haith began early. Missouri won its first 14 games, establishing itself as a Big 12 Conference favorite, along with Baylor and Kansas. Later, the regular season's final month included a sweep of the Bears and a three-point victory over the Jayhawks on Feb. 4 at Mizzou Arena.
On Feb. 25, Missouri looked as if it would earn its first season sweep of Kansas since 1994 and place itself in position to claim at least a share of the Big 12 title. That day, the Tigers held a 19-point second-half lead at Allen Fieldhouse. But the Jayhawks rallied to earn a one-point overtime victory and win their eighth consecutive Big 12 championship. The game featured intense passion and served as a fitting close to a regular-season series with roots that date to the Civil War.
Missouri recovered from that emotional loss, though, and finished the regular season with victories over Iowa State and Texas Tech to earn sole possession of second place with a 14-4 Big 12 record. A deep Big 12 tournament run prolonged the Tigers' momentum, and continued success under Haith could make their March one they won't forget.
Why they'll get to New Orleans: When Denmon is hot, Missouri looks unbeatable. The Kansas City, Mo., native is the Tigers' heart, and Haith has to like his team's chances with strong backcourt leadership.
Why they'll flame out early: Kansas State swept Missouri in the regular season with superior size and aggressive perimeter defense. A team with a similar build could exploit the Tigers' lack of length.
Key to their title hopes: Missouri needs to act like a favorite, even if the role is unfamiliar late in March. The Tigers have never made a trip to the Final Four. But this team is more complete than the one that appeared in the Elite Eight in 2009.