COLUMBIA — Football may be in full swing, but Missouri’s men’s basketball team will soon begin preparations for its upcoming season, as players are due to report to Columbia this weekend and begin practicing on Tuesday.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
I recently got a chance to catch up with Missouri coach Frank Haith, who touched on a number of topics, including the progress his players made this summer, the effect the ongoing NCAA case has had on him and his expectations for this year’s team, which must replace four starters from a group that went 23-11 and reached the NCAA tournament.
"There’s not a lot of buzz about our team, but I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good,” Haith said. “We’ve got good talent and we’ve got some guys that haven’t done it quite yet but I do think are very capable of being good players and having good seasons.”
One player Haith is extremely pleased with is 6-foot-11 junior center Keanau Post. Haith said the junior college transfer from Southwestern Illinois Community College, who is listed at 268 pounds, has worked hard to transform his body over the summer.
“I’ve talked about how the strength program was going to be important for him, and he’s taken that to heart,” Haith said. “His numbers are unbelievable for what he’s done in eight weeks of training. He’s cut body fat and he’s put on 10-12 pounds of muscle.”
Haith said he’s been most impressed with Post’s skill level on the block, where he is capable of scoring with either hand via a jump hook.
“You saw Alex (Oriakhi) get better as the year went on in our straight pick-and-roll stuff, but Keanau’s ability to catch on the move and score from the low post will be as good as anybody we’ve had here,” Haith said.
Haith said Post’s improved conditioning should also help him on the defensive end, where he will have to help on the perimeter when teams run the pick-and-roll.
“He moves his feet well and gets out on hard hedges,” Haith said. “Ricardo (Ratliffe) was outstanding at that, but Keanau’s better than Alex at that. Now we have to get him to a point where he’s a great rotation guy that can take a charge and block a shot.”
Haith is looking forward to see Post’s development over the next several months.
“His thing is confidence and being able to do it with the lights on and in a setting where he’s guarded all the time,” Haith said. “But his attitude is A-1.”
Post will clearly be a player to keep an eye on in a frontcourt long on options but short on experience. Senior Tony Criswell was a solid post defender last season, while sophomores Stefan Jankovic and Ryan Rosburg will look to take their games to the next level after getting their first taste of college ball.
Haith said freshman forwards Torren Jones and Johnathan Williams III have a chance to contribute down low, as well.
“Guys understand they’ll have opportunities to produce,” Haith said. “When you’ve got 11 guys, you have to try to get down to a nine-man rotation. Whether a guy has to redshirt or not, I do anticipate us playing eight or nine guys. But I do think we’ve got 11 guys with the ability to go out there and complete and play here.”
Haith, who met with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in June regarding his ongoing NCAA case, could not comment about the status of the case but again expressed relief the ordeal is finally drawing to a close.
“It’s been a long few years, but I have looked at it in a positive way,” Haith said. “We’re all faced with adversity and we all get better facing it and I’m no different. I know I’ve gotten better and grown from it.”
I then asked Haith how much the negative publicity from the case has affected recruiting over the last few years.
“People may say it hurt us and maybe it did, but we’ve been able to work through it,” Haith said. “We had a grind mentality and still got guys who want to be here.”
• Haith is understandably high on freshman point guard Wes Clark, a four-star prospect according to Rivals, and expects him to share the point guard duties with junior Jordan Clarkson. Freshman point guard Shane Rector, who Haith said has also made impressive gains in the weight room this offseason, will also figure into that mix.
“People are going to have a treat watching Wes play,” Haith said. “Wes is very capable of getting big minutes and he will, but he’s got Jordan Clarkson – who spent all summer playing point, all of last year playing point and has been tremendous – there too.”
Haith, however, added that Clark had minor knee surgery this offseason.
“Wes had some loose stuff in his knee, some loose cartilage so we had to clean it up,” Haith said. “He has worked hard this summer but he will be good to go. It’s nothing serious.”
• Haith is eager to see some vocal leaders emerge from this current group, though the odds-on favorites are Clarkson, Brown and senior forward Earnest Ross.
“Gotta have it, can’t win without it,” Haith said. "I see Jordan and Jabari (Brown) moving to the forefront. It’s probably not Jabari’s nature, but I am force-feeding that to him and encouraging him because both have the ability to be the leaders of this team. Even Earnest, he could add leadership.”
• Speaking of Brown, Haith said the 6-foot-5, 214-pound guard looks fantastic after another offseason with strength coach Todor Pandov.
“He is a man right now, a rocked-up guy,” Haith said. “For a guard, he’s got great strength.”
• Haith said Baylor transfer Deuce Bello, a 6-foot-4 swingman who will sit out the upcoming season, had surgery to repair a stress fracture this offseason.
“It was his tibia, but he’s fine,” Haith said. “He’s been rehabbing and he’ll be good to go.”
• Haith is also high on Louisville transfer Zach Price, a 6-foot-11 center who will become eligible in 2014.
“He is like Keanau, he moves well for a guy his size,” Haith said. “He’s a lefty post guy too, which is a great quality to have. He’s been coached, he works hard and he gives us another big body with a presence.”
• For those wondering why Missouri scheduled a home exhibition game against Oklahoma City University this season (instead of another in-state school), Haith said his personal relationship with OCU coach Dionne Phelps played a big role.
“We’ve played in-state guys every year, this is just something different,” Haith said. “I’m friends with the coach there, and he and I talked about playing. It’s nothing more than that. We always try to play in-state opponents and we’ll more than likely continue to do that.”