COLUMBIA – With the Missouri basketball team's game against Kansas looming, Tigers' head coach Frank Haith doesn’t want to see the contest as more than what it is, but he has noticed a difference in the atmosphere surrounding his team this week.
ESPN's "College Gameday" will appear on the polished hardwood floor of Mizzou Arena for the first time. And 71 hours before tipoff passionate fans assembled a mini-tent village outside the arena to make sure they can be a part of the show. Then there is the viral video of a group of Tigers fans proclaiming their school spirit.
No. 8 Kansas (18-4, 8-1)
at No. 4 Missouri (20-2, 7-2)
WHEN: 8 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ 96.7 FM
“It hasn’t been a normal week," Haith said. "There’s a lot of things going on, but we have talked about not getting distracted, about focusing on us staying true to who we are and what we’ve done all year.”
What the Tigers have done the most is win, but even Haith didn’t anticipate the level of success the Missouri men’s basketball team has enjoyed this season.
In his first season as head coach, Haith's Tigers have accumulated 20 wins against two losses and have been ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation.
“Earlier in the year, I think we had good players, and I knew we were going to be a pretty good team just based on our talent," Haith said. "But being able to get it to jell and play together, I have to be honest, it has exceeded my expectations for sure.”
Haith attributes Missouri’s success to having "really good players" who are "really good kids."
“Those two things go together,” Haith said. “I think that when you have that as part of your ingredient, you have a chance for success.”
When Haith took over the program, he talked to Mike Anderson, who had directed the program the five preceding years, and who he considers a friend.
“He was very positive about everything in terms of his players and the kind of people that were here. Everything was very positive,” Haith said. “It was exciting to me to know that he felt really good about everything, so it was an easy transition in that regard.”
From the beginning, Haith said the players were eager to learn and to be coached. But he had taken over a program before at Miami, and he knew building trust with his new team wouldn’t be so easy.
“You have to just have opportunities for those guys to get to know you," Haith said. "In terms of that trust, it’s built. You don’t get that trust right away. It happens over a period of time.”
Opportunities for him to build that trust came in the form of one-on-one meetings with players, phone conversations, texts and time spent watching tape with them after every practice. Haith used those film sessions as a teaching tool and has seen a great deal of improvement in his team’s play because of it.
He also credits the team’s leadership, especially senior guards Kim English and Marcus Denmon, with helping the Tigers make the transition and adapt to his coaching philosophy that focuses on togetherness, trust and selflessness.
Haith explained how English set aside his aspirations of being a small forward in the NBA to play power forward for Missouri. Junior guard Michael Dixon, who was a starter last year, now comes off the bench for the Tigers.
“When guys on your team see guys make sacrifices, that helps with getting everybody on the same page and going after the same common goal, and that’s to win,” Haith said. “They want to win, and they’re doing what they need to do to give us a chance to win.”
Denmon attributes the team’s success to the hard work and togetherness that Haith preaches. He said he considers Haith a player’s coach who is passionate about what he does. Denmon said Haith has remained hard working and humble even with all the success Missouri has had.
Senior guard Matt Pressey also describes Haith as a coach who knows how to work with his players and challenge them. He stays on Pressey about having confidence and playing aggressively.
“He’s a calm, cool, collected type of coach,” Pressey said. “He really knows his players, and that’s something I really admire about him.”
Haith said he sees Saturday's game as an opportunity to improve Missouri’s standings in the conference race, get into the NCAA tournament and improve the team’s potential seeding.
Still, he knows the Tigers have a long way to go before the season ends.
“We’re at a midpoint in terms of conference play, and we’ve got a whole slew of games left to play, and we’re going to continue to compete and play as well as we can play,” Haith said.
Looking into the future, Haith thinks the team is at a place where it can continue its success. He said having a great university with a great academic reputation, a great fan base, a tremendous arena and a really good basketball league puts Missouri in a place where it can be successful and maintain that success.
“That’s what’s exciting for me,” Haith said. “I feel very honored and very blessed to have the opportunity to be the head coach here at Missouri.”