- Jason King
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They were all on the Sprint Center podium, each member of the Missouri basketball team, sporting the commemorative hats and T-shirts given only to Big 12 champions.
Confetti fell from the rafters after the Tigers’ 90-75 beatdown of Baylor. Girlfriends and parents took pictures from the stands and players bobbed their heads as “All I Do is Win” boomed through the arena’s speaker system. The whole scene was surreal -- storybook, even -- for a school just months away from joining the SEC.
This was Missouri’s last moment in the Big 12.
And also its finest.
Then suddenly, the Tigers realized something was missing. Just as league commissioner Chuck Neinas was about to hand over the Big 12 tournament trophy, guard Kim English looked down from his perch and shouted toward the court.
“Hey Coach,” the senior said, “get up here.”
Frank Haith grinned and walked toward the steps. There was a reason he’d been hiding out, a reason he’d waited to join his team on the stage. While the Tigers had been celebrating, Haith was busy wiping away tears.
“I was reflecting,” Haith said. “It’s been a special run, man.”
Indeed, the players who everyone said were too small are 30-4. The team with no depth may earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The man whose hire was ridiculed last spring is the toast not just of Columbia, but of college basketball.
You could argue that a few coaches -- a very small few -- have done as good a job as Haith this season. But there’s certainly no one that has done any better. That’s why English and his teammates wanted to make sure Haith was the first Tiger to touch that Big 12 tournament trophy Saturday. Haith always likes the spotlight to shine on his players.
But during those emotional postgame moments at the Sprint Center, he deserved it, too.
“You did this,” English said he whispered into his coach’s ear. “You constructed this. You’re the reason we played the way we played.”
Just as they have all season, the Tigers treated fans to a beautiful brand of basketball in dismantling a Baylor squad that had looked dominant in its previous two wins against Kansas State and Kansas.
The Tigers shot 53 percent from the field because they passed up good shots for great ones. Their jerseys were dotted with blood because they clawed for rebounds and dove for loose balls. The crowd of 19,006 -- about 18,500 of them were Missouri fans -- got behind them because of the toughness of players such as English and Marcus Denmon, each of whom received pregame cortisone shots so they could play through nagging injuries.
“You just can’t measure this team’s heart and toughness,” guard Michael Dixon said. “I don’t really think too many people outside of ourselves and our fans thought we could do this.”
It’s not as if the Tigers haven’t tasted success before. English and Denmon were freshmen on a 2008-09 squad that reached the Elite Eight, and each of Missouri’s top seven players were key components of a team that won 23 games last season under Mike Anderson, who left in March to take the Arkansas job.
After attempts to lure Matt Painter from Purdue failed, Missouri hired Haith and spent the ensuing spring and summer being mocked nationally. Haith had led Miami to just one NCAA tournament appearance in seven seasons. And last summer, his name surfaced in a Yahoo! Sports report involving impermissible payments to Hurricanes athletes, including one basketball player. Although the NCAA is still investigating, Haith hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.
The cherry on top of Haith’s tumultuous offseason occurred when standout forward Laurence Bowers suffered a season-ending knee injury before the start of fall workouts.
“It’s been a difficult process with all things we’ve had to go through,” Haith said. “I’ve been very humbled by the whole process. The Laurence Bowers injury, the NCAA stuff ... all that stuff. This team and our staff stayed on the course and stayed focused.”
Haith talks all the time about how his players have matured.
But he has grown, too.
Haith brought structure and discipline to an erratic offense. Missouri’s 50.3 field-goal percentage ranks third in the nation. Anderson’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” defense was scrapped, but the Tigers’ quickness and intensity pesters opposing offenses and helps make up for their lack of size.
Missouri starts just one player (6-8 forward Ricardo Ratliffe) who stands taller than 6-foot-5. But instead of that being a detriment, the Tigers see their four-guard offense as a strength. Rare is the power forward who can keep up with the speedy, sinewy English. And there aren’t many small forwards who can stay in front of players such as Denmon and Dixon.
“People like to talk about what this team is not,” Haith said. “That’s what’s motivated this group. I’ve told them, ‘Let’s focus on who we are and what we can do. We can’t change. We’re not going to add any more players. We’re not going to grow any taller. We are who we are.’”
After this weekend, no one should question Missouri’s identity any further.
The Tigers are the best team in the Big 12. Maybe they weren’t during the regular season, when Kansas won the conference title by two games over their archrival. But right now, just days away from the NCAA tournament, Missouri is the best the league has to offer.
Partly because their seven-man rotation is mainly comprised of juniors and seniors, the Tigers were hungrier, more cohesive and mentally tougher than any team in the Big 12 tournament, and there’s no reason to think that won’t carry over into the games that matter most.
Missouri will almost certainly open NCAA tournament play in Omaha on Friday, but the question is whether they’ll be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. No school from a Big Six conference has ever not been awarded a No. 1 seed after winning 30 or more regular season games.
Most prognostications, however, suggest that the Tigers will be a No. 2.
“We definitely deserve (a No. 1 seed),” Dixon said. “We’ve got 30 wins and four losses with seven guys. But it’s not really in our control. We’ll take whoever we play head-on. We don’t care who we get.”
As forward as he’s looking to the NCAA tournament, Haith wanted to make sure to enjoy Saturday’s accomplishment, too.
Cameras rolled and light bulbs flashed as Haith climbed the ladder to snip away the Sprint Center net. The crowd erupted in cheers. Just before Haith lifted his scissors toward the cotton, he clutched both sides of the ladder, stared at the ground and closed his eyes. There were no tears this time when Haith raised his head, only a large gulp.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to act, I guess,” Haith said. “I’m just going to be who I am.”