COLUMBIA — It's hard not to buy into the hype surrounding the No. 10 Missouri men's basketball team.
It started with a blowout victory over then-ranked California in Kansas City. After a convincing win over Villanova in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday, the Tigers enter Saturday's game against Navy 8-0.
But senior captain Marcus Denmon has a reminder for critics and fans alike.
"Eight games doesn't decide a season," Denmon said. "We haven't won or done anything yet."
No one is arguing Missouri isn't an improved team, but where does that improvement stem from?
For sophomore Phil Pressey, the team's growth didn't start when coach Frank Haith was hired last April. It is not a product of the Tigers' new four-guard lineup, or the adversity overcome with losing senior Laurence Bowers to a knee injury.
It began in offseason pickups games.
"I wouldn't say it's the style of play, it's just that we get along so well," Pressey said. "Playing pickup games, we just clicked. Whatever style we play we're going to be able to score and play as a team."
The theme of the season has been selflessness. Haith calls it the reason his team has "clicked." It is why senior Kim English feels better about his team than he ever has.
“We’ve got a veteran team with older guys, but it can go either way," Haith said. "They can be stubborn because they’ve been used to doing things a certain way for a long period of time. Or they can have the poise and understanding to buy in. Our guys have really bought in and shown great leadership.”
While Haith celebrates that his team buys into his program, day in and day out, he encourages them to not buy into outside voices.
"So much is being made about styles and changes. I want our guys to understand to just go play basketball," Haith said.
That includes understanding their strengths and weakness, knowing they are a short team lacking depth. It's working to play a consistent 40 minutes and staying out of foul trouble. It's learning how to defend in the half court.
"No coach is going to sit there and tell you they're perfect, and we're not perfect," Haith said.
The Tigers have shown weakness in the second half of games. Scoring has been inconsistent between halves, as the Tigers have won the first half of each game by an average of 18 points and the second half by an average of 9. The second half of Tuesday's game against Villanova, when they were outscored 42-39, is the only half the Tigers have lost all season.
"We had some knucklehead plays," Haith said. "The team needs to play a certain way throughout the entire game, whether we're up or down. And that's something we've got to continually work with."
Haith challenges his team to have a focus on the present, on constantly improving, on "staying hungry." He refers to a saying used by Texas coach Rick Barnes, "Proud peacock today, feather duster tomorrow."
"I think we all know that the tide could change anytime," Haith said. "Our focus is not getting too high or too low, but staying consistent."