As Mizzou basketball coach Frank Haith waited to do an interview with ESPN on Friday, he overheard the analysts assessing his team’s chances against UCLA the next day.
“They were basically not giving us a chance,” Haith said Wednesday. “And I come on, and I’m like, ‘I agree! We might as well just fold up the tent and wave the white flag. It’s not going to happen.’”
Not unless MU was at its “best-disciplined defensively,” that is.
Which Haith couldn’t so much expect as just hope for with a team that would be playing with just a little over 36 hours between games, a team that is very much in an embryonic phase with just one starter back from this time a year ago.
But with a little jolt from, uh, challenging the Tigers when they trailed 43-35 at halftime, MU prevailed 80-71 to improbably improve to 9-0 and jump into The Associated Press rankings at No. 24.
“As coaches, we’re never, ever really, really, really always satisfied,” he said, smiling. “But I think we’ve done relatively well.”
Of course, MU has yet to play a true road game. And the Tigers ultimately will be measured by what impact they can make in the NCAA Tournament, in which they’ve been one-and-done in Haith’s first two seasons at Missouri.
But certainly this team is further along at this stage than last season’s talented-but-erratic group, which was less than the sum of its parts.
And it has the apparent mesh, versatility and defensive mind-set to give it a chance to become a team to watch instead of one to fret over if the attitude is as good as Haith thinks it is.
“You either get better or you get worse,” he told his players after the UCLA game.
Or as junior guard Jordan Clarkson put it: “We just can’t be complacent. We’ve just got to stay paranoid.”
But there’s plenty to be optimistic about after the surprisingly brisk start that also included the victory last week against West Virginia.
Especially since the team was without Haith for its first five games, when he was serving an NCAA suspension for its findings against him in the Nevin Shapiro mess at Miami.
Whatever inclination he had to further fight it, however disappointing the ruling might be to those who wanted to believe he was innocent, Haith was right to take the punishment and look to the future without this hovering over him for the first time since he arrived at Missouri.
Not that he wasn’t coaching when he was watching those games by himself at home.
“I called more timeouts, I went more psycho watching the games on TV than any game” in person, he said.
He also took notes. Lots of them. And he saw things at a distance that maybe he wouldn’t have seen up close.
“You turn every negative into a positive,” he said, “and it ended up being a positive for me.”
As pleased as he was by his assistants’ work in his wake, he also said he saw “slippage” that might be expected when “Dad’s away and big brother’s taking over.”
So when he returned Nov. 26, he had one message to deliver in particular: “We’re not going to be the type of team we want to have unless we change some things,” he told the team.
Namely, more attention to detail and a more cohesive overall approach.
Some of that had been planted before the season, when Haith had his team attend a Missouri National Guard training session at Camp Crowder outside Neosho, Mo.
Of all the team-building things they did there, perhaps what stood out most was what wasn’t there: cell phone service.
Now that’s adversity.
“It kind of forced us to talk to each other and create a chemistry that we hadn’t had before,” Clarkson said, smiling but not really joking.
Haith liked that element of it so much that he’s likely to put it to use later this season.
“They don’t communicate any more,” he said. “So when we travel, we’re probably going to take their phones just to get them focused on the game. And talking to each other.”
And doing that was reiterated upon his return by Haith, who’s had a jumble of different situations to work with in his three seasons at MU.
The common denominator: With few exceptions, persuading players to buy into the big picture over their own interests is why he’s 57-16 at MU.
“Constant communication,” he said, is what it takes to “see guys give in to what they think their role is for betterment of the team.” Some “fight you,” Haith added.
But most aren’t. That’s why guard Jabari Brown can be seen now taking pride in his defense, Haith said. And it’s what’s enabled freshman forward Johnathan Williams III to handle Haith being in his grill at halftime against UCLA and finishing with 15 rebounds and 10 points.
“He’s exceeded my expectations so far,” he said, smiling. “Now, I don’t want to jinx him. And now I’m going to put pressure on him He’s earned that.”
And so has a team that also has exceeded expectations so far.