Two years ago, when Missouri shook our local sports scene by jumping to the SEC, the common thinking had the football team overmatched and the basketball team positioned to leapfrog up a level in the national conversation.
With a remarkable run to the conference championship game, the football team proved half of that wrong.
A season and a half into the new league, Frank Haith’s basketball program is a long way from proving the other half of that right, and time to take advantage of the opportunity is slipping away.
Mizzou beat dreadful South Carolina 82-74 in front of 12,033 fans on Saturday, and now comes the important part — a three-game stretch starting Tuesday that will go a lot way in defining this season, and by extension Haith’s progress three years into what’s already been a wild time here.
“You guys can do that,” Haith told reporters about emphasizing the next three games — at Arkansas, Kentucky at home and at Florida. “I’m sure you’ll write all you need to write about that, measuring our team up based on what we do these next three games.”
Indeed, we will. And for good reason.
In a fair context, Haith can claim success if he gets the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament and everyone else can say mean things about his ability if they don’t. And these next three games — you can actually stretch it to six, if you include a road game at Ole Miss followed by home games against Arkansas and Tennessee — are at the heart of how this team will be judged and remembered.
Mizzou now sits 15-4 overall and 3-3 in (by far) the worst major conference. The Tigers probably need to go 9-3 the rest of the way to feel good about making the tournament out of a conference currently ranked between the Atlantic 10 and American in some metrics. Without Mizzou, it’s entirely plausible that the SEC could be a two-bid league.
Make the tournament, and Haith can hold his head high for managing one more patchwork team to reasonable success. Miss the tourney, and the program has regressed for the second year in a row and would lose something like 70 percent of its scoring if Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown (who is the SEC’s leading scorer and now has 98 points on 50 shots his last four games) leave school early.
Mizzou should be above this type of situation, but Haith and the program made this bed with a light nonconference schedule, one of the weakest inside games in major-college basketball, and hollow losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt.
Haith is too far into his time at Mizzou for him and his supporters to reference Mike Anderson leaving the recruiting empty — especially when Anderson also left a just-add-belief 30-win team that won the Big 12 tournament in Haith’s first season.
Ryan Rosburg is the only player remaining from Haith’s first recruiting class, and he is still trying to find his way. Freshman forward Johnathan Williams looks like a good player, but point guard Wes Clark is still trying to slow things down.
Haith caught a break when Mizzou called him at Miami, and his first few years were always going to be a bit of a plug-some-holes-and-call-for-help operation (even without the NCAA rules drama that led to a five-game suspension this season). Haith’s first team had seven seniors and no freshmen, so the transfer-heavy strategy made sense.
Haith, to his credit, has shown to be a better coach than most thought when Mizzou hired him. The personal progress of players like Alex Oriahki and especially Brown has been particularly impressive. Then again, Haith’s inability to filter Phil Pressey’s mistakes from his successes went a long way in keeping last season from being more successful.
Either way, relying so heavily on transfers is not sustainable in the long-term, in part because the pool of talent is smaller and you have to plan so far ahead. And if the bigger Mizzou community is serious about using the SEC tide to lift all boats, then it needs more out of the second-most visible program in the athletic department.
That’s what makes these next six games — and the picture they will paint about this season as a whole — so critical.
There are good signs, none bigger than Brown emerging as a star but also better ball movement, confidence, and a combined 16 points and 10 rebounds from Williams and Rosburg on Saturday.
But there are bad signs, too, including but not limited to inconsistent shooting, stagnant offense and defensive pressure.
If Mizzou can get through this with an NCAA Tournament bid, Haith will have his best chance yet to generate some stability. Rosburg, Clark and Williams will be a year better, three more talented transfers will be eligible, and Haith has signed two four-star recruits including power forward Jakeenan Gant, a top-50 player nationally.
But if he misses the tournament, the questions (and worse) about Haith will carry much more weight and legitimacy. That will affect everything, from recruiting to morale around the program and support from fans and boosters.
This was supposed to be an opportunity for Mizzou, a chance to push up from a pack of nice programs nationally to a higher class of perennial contenders. Time is running out on that, for the program and its coach.
It will need to pull through one of the few difficult stretches an SEC schedule has to offer. Haith’s team is plenty talented enough to do it and make the NCAA Tournament.
It’s just that three years in, the program was supposed to be above needing to.