Missouri’s players insist not much will change despite coach Frank Haith’s absence Friday when the season tips off against Southeastern Louisiana at Mizzou Arena.
Haith will begin serving his five-game NCAA suspension, which continues through Nov. 25.
But the Tigers won’t let his absence temper expectations for the next weeks with associate head coach Tim Fuller taking the reins on an interim basis.
“I don’t think it will really be a difference,” junior guard Jabari Brown said. “Coach Fuller has been under Coach Haith for a few years now, so it’s going to be the same principles, the same structure on offense and defense.”
Fuller is the only one of Missouri’s three assistants who has been around throughout Haith’s three-year tenure. He also has served as the primary recruiting in bringing together most of the Tigers’ roster.
“I feel comfortable with Coach Fuller, and I think most of the guys do,” Brown said. “He brought a lot of us here, so I feel like he’s familiar with everybody just like Coach Haith. I feel like it will be a smooth transition.”
Fuller’s reign also will include upcoming games against Southern Illinois, Hawaii, Gardner-Webb and IUPUI as Missouri begins the post-Phil Pressey era led by junior point guard Jordan Clarkson, a Tulsa transfer.
“The most important thing is those 16 heartbeats in that locker room — to make sure that they’re covered, that they know I have their back and that they know I’m going to give my very best to hopefully get their very best,” Fuller said.
The Tigers return two part-time starters — Brown, who was Missouri’s second-leading scorer last season at 13.7 points per game after becoming eligible midseason, and senior Earnest Ross, who only started 10 games.
Senior Tony Criswell’s suspension further complicates a roster trying to fold in Clarkson, junior college transfer Keanau Post and two promising true freshmen, Johnathan Williams III and Wes Clark.
Missouri hopes that Haith’s suspension, rather to induce panic and struggles, will galvanize the team as it tries to come together.
“I feel like it can, knowing it’s really just us out there right now,” Clarkson said. “I don’t think any coach in college basketball has scored a basket while they’ve been coaching, so we’ve really got to come together and become one — make plays on the court and just do what we do.”
Besides, Haith’s influence will still be felt.
“With the type of guys that we have and the leaders that we have, we’re pretty much just reciprocating coach Haith out there on the court, in timeouts and stuff like that,” Ross said.