COLUMBIA — Anticipate. Frank Haith lingered on the word.
In a news conference Tuesday morning, the cadence of the new Missouri men’s basketball coach broke just slightly as he discussed which players would return to his team for the 2011-2012 season. The word was only slightly exaggerated, but there was an emphasis, as his tone rose for a brief second.
One of Haith’s first moves at Missouri must be cementing his roster. It’s more than just recruiting, though he has three scholarship spots he must fill this year. Haith also must do his best to retain four players, to in a sense recruit men already on his team — Kim English, Laurence Bowers, Phil Pressey and Matt Pressey — who might choose to leave Missouri.
English and Bowers declared for the 2011 NBA draft but did not hire agents. That they are considering leaving is public, and convincing them to return might not be too difficult for Haith. The bigger challenge lies in the murky situation surrounding the Pressey brothers. The prospect of their departure wouldn't appear in a press release. It's more personal. Their father, Paul Pressey, is a long-time friend of former Missouri coach Mike Anderson, and there has been speculation that the brothers might follow Anderson to Arkansas.
If either transferred, he would have to sit out a year. Phil Pressey, a freshman guard, would lose his sophomore season. Matt Pressey, a junior guard, transferred to Missouri from Navarro Community College before the 2010-2011 season. Because of SEC rules that state that a player who has transferred twice cannot receive a scholarship, he would have to walk on at Arkansas, which complicates his situation.
Of the brothers, Phil Pressey is a bigger factor on the Missouri team. He was a national top-50 recruit in 2010 and started many of the Tigers' games this year, while his brother played off the bench. Phil Pressey averaged 22.3 minutes and 6.5 points per game, compared to Matt Pressey's averages of 17.5 minutes and 5.7 points.
Haith said he is excited to coach the brothers next season.
“I think Phil (Pressey) is a terrific talent, and I anticipate coaching him, as well as all the young men who were there this morning,” Haith said.
There it was. Just a bit longer, just a bit louder: “anticipate.”
As Haith spoke, most of his players sat in a cluster to the left of the podium. They watched. They listened. They clapped when it was appropriate. Who was there and what they did was less important. What mattered was who was missing: the Presseys.
“That means nothing,” English said. “Matt (Pressey) had class and Phil (Pressey) had study hall with a tutor."
The absence might have been meaningless. But it was noticeable. It might have been a statement. It could have just as easily been a coincidence.
English added that the brothers love Missouri.
“It’s a hard place not to love,” English said.
Both brothers attended the team meeting with Haith on Tuesday. At the meeting, Haith said, he stressed the relationships he hopes to build with his new team and his commitment to the program. He can only hope his players will return that commitment to him.
Bowers said he spoke with Phil Pressey after the meeting, and he acknowledged that the freshman has a decision to make.
“He (Phil Pressey) seemed confident. He said he wants to talk to Coach (Haith) and see what’s going to happen, what’s his philosophy, stuff like that,” Bowers said. “We can only play it by ear now, but I really think Phil Pressey doesn’t want to leave us.”
It all comes down to the concept at the root of the Missouri coaching vacancy: family.
Anderson left Missouri to return to his Arkansas family. Matt Painter turned down Missouri for his Purdue family. The Presseys will most likely base their decisions less on the mechanics of basketball or the philosophy of a program. The decisions will come down to a relationship that they've had for their entire lives. Each needs to decide if he will follow the man he calls "Uncle Mike" to Arkansas or if he will remain at Missouri to see whether Haith can create his own family there.
Haith said that building those close relationships with his players is at the center of his coaching philosophy, and he made one thing clear early in the press conference.
“I told them (the players) I’m not going to be Mike Anderson,” Haith said. “I’m going to be Frank Haith. But if you allow me to be a part of your life, I’m a pretty good guy.”
Allowing Haith to be a part of their lives, believing in his system, committing to someone other than Anderson — the Presseys must decide if they’re willing to buy in.