Maybe Missouri basketball has a hidden gear it’s waiting to uncoil. Just because it has been invisible the last two games doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Then again, just because the gear might be there doesn’t mean it’s going to become any more apparent, either.
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“I thought we competed,” coach Frank Haith told reporters after MU’s 71-56 loss at Georgia on Wednesday.
Somehow that was better than hearing him question the Tigers’ effort in their previous loss, to woeful Alabama.
But it’s jarring in another way to think it didn’t take a lack of effort to get jackhammered by the Bulldogs.
If you watched the game, though, you wouldn’t exactly say MU wasn’t trying.
It’s just that the Tigers were shredded defensively and looked rudderless offensively. There was little rhythm or cohesion, only a fragmented series of forced shots as they fell for the ninth time in 18 games since a 10-0 start.
And after these fiascoes at Alabama and Georgia, games Missouri had to win for even a decent NCAA Tournament resume, a once-intriguing, then-puzzling team is coming into focus as a dud.
Sure, MU could storm back from a tie for ninth place in the Southeastern Conference, entering Wednesday night’s games.
It could surge into the SEC Tournament, earn an NCAA berth and make all this seem like growing pains.
But from where might that be conjured?
By now, teams have formed their identities and personalities, and this one is what, exactly?
While MU’s inside game sputters, guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson are about as good as anyone in the SEC. Along with Earnest Ross, the three were averaging more than 53 points a game — the most for a Tigers trio since 1990-91.
But on Tuesday they made just 11 of 37 field goals, including two of 15 three-pointers, and that was that.
Some of that was Georgia’s defense. But it also was about some bewildering shot selection.
And that gets to the essence of this team, which perhaps was off-kilter from the start after Haith’s five-game suspension by the NCAA.
There is no evident or effective leadership on the floor. There is no apparent chemistry. Players don’t seem to trust one another. The team seems adrift.
It’s frustrating to watch, because the Tigers look as frustrated as they play.
Certainly, this may be a mere aberration in Haith’s tenure, whose 53-16 record after two seasons was the best two-year start by a MU coach.
But it’s also possible this is where his program is trending after three seasons.
This is, after all, his first MU team with only his recruits.
Now, Haith was saddled some by Mike Anderson’s curiously negligent recruiting before he left for Arkansas in 2011. And that still has an impact.
But it’s equally true that Haith was left a tremendous senior class to work with in 2011-12, and that was the only one of his three teams that gelled.
He worked wonders with that team, nimbly adapting after Laurence Bowers went down with a knee injury. It’s a shame those Tigers, who finished 30-5, suffered a NCAA Tournament-opening loss to Norfolk State, because that eclipsed the fact they were a thrill to watch because of how they played together.
That season, really, was a clinic of chemistry. Intangible as the concept might be, forward Ricardo Ratliffe then put it best when he said, “A lot of people tell me they can see it.”
That cohesion was a credit to Haith, who was widely recognized as the national coach of the year.
A year later, though, MU slipped some to 23-11. It was evident that team was less than the sum of its parts.
Now there is this, 19-9 and 7-8 in the SEC, which even now connects back to where Anderson left Haith and how he responded.
To balance his future classes, Haith felt compelled to put an extreme emphasis on recruiting transfers.
In one sense, that has worked well. He lured Alex Oriakhi from Connecticut, Brown from Oregon, Clarkson from Tulsa and Ross from Auburn. MU’s roster next year will feature Baylor transfer Deuce Bello, Louisville’s Zach Price and, after the first semester, Notre Dame’s Cameron Biedscheid.
In another sense, though, that turnstile may explain part of the void.
Haith really couldn’t help it that Missouri had only one returning player last season, but the glitch in the philosophy began to show up when the Tigers started this season with players who had a total of 38 starts at Missouri.
If Brown and Clarkson leave early for the NBA, MU will again lose almost all of its scoring and be all but starting over again in Haith’s fourth season, too.
It’s one thing for schools getting one-and-done caliber players to have to negotiate that kind of turnover. But it’s another for a team to have to reconfigure nearly every year with anything less than that.
Haith stresses that it’s not as abrupt as that because players who transfer generally have a full year to acclimate before playing.
That’s true. And each young man may be a fine fit at MU.
But does he coalesce with everybody and everything else around him on the court?
Ratliffe’s words come to mind, only in the opposite context.
What’s missing here may or may not be because of the massing of transfers, which has worked elsewhere.
But that’s certainly part of what’s keeping MU’s roster in flux at a time when it can’t seem to come together.
And one way or another, Haith has to figure out a better way to make this all mesh. He’s coaxed that out before, and he needs to it again. Soon.
Or this season won’t be an aberration but a direction.