Haith's personality easy to see in style of Missouri men's basketball team

Thursday, March 15, 2012 | 8:08 p.m. CDT; updated 9:38 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 16, 2012
Senior guard Matt Pressey and head coach Frank Haith hold up the Big 12 Championship Trophy after the Missouri Tigers beat the Baylor Bears on March 10 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

COLUMBIA — The Missouri men's basketball team hit the road Wednesday afternoon for a business trip.

That's what the players are calling the team's NCAA Tournament trip this weekend to Omaha, Neb., on Twitter. It's also what they called the team's trip to Kansas City last weekend where Missouri won the Big 12 tournament championship.

Missouri's NCAA Tournament opener

No. 2 seed Missouri (30-4)
vs. No. 15 seed Norfolk State (25-9)

WHEN: 3:40 p.m. Friday
CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ/96.7 FM

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"Every game is about business, every road trip is about business," senior Kim English said. "We came to Kansas City to take care of business."

The players' business attitude is something they get from Tigers coach Frank Haith.

Haith coaches with purpose, stressing the "process" to his players and how important preparation is for each and every game. So far this season, the "process" has worked. The Tigers are ranked No. 3 in the country and are a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, the team's best seed since 1994.

All of his players have completely bought into the process, often echoing Haith's words about preparation, focus and hard work in postgame news conferences.

"Coach is real intense. He's a really focused guy," senior Matt Pressey said. "Coaches kind of imitate what their teams should look like, and he's done a good job of teaching us the right things. We've kind of taken on the characteristics of him."

It can be hard to believe that this team is in the position it is after the way it ended last season. The Tigers lost five of their last six games last season, then saw former coach Mike Anderson leave to coach at Arkansas.

When Haith was brought in to replace Anderson, many people around the nation scoffed at the hire.

"I don't know what Missouri basketball fans think Missouri basketball was at that time," English said. "That was not a top-10 program."

Despite losing three of the 10 main players from last year's team, Missouri is a top-10 program now. The Tigers lost Justin Safford, who graduated, and Ricky Kreklow, who chose to transfer to California, before suffering their biggest blow. Standout senior forward Laurence Bowers endured a season-ending knee injury in October, causing even more people to write off the team.

Instead, the Tigers got hungrier. The team's five scholarship seniors were hungry to end their careers with a bang. Haith was hungry to show the world that he was the right man for the job.

"I think this team has been pretty determined and focused all year," Haith said. "This group has been pretty amazing and pretty resilient in how we attack everything. I don't think we'll waver in our focus and competitive spirit."

As Haith and his staff purposefully set about forming a strategy to win with a short team and an even shorter bench, he got his players to buy into new roles.

"He came in here with the right set of mind and wanting to win, and he brought the kind of things that we needed to win," Pressey said. "We all bought in to what he was saying, and that helped us have a great season this year."

English, who is 6 feet, 6 inches but sees himself as an NBA guard, agreed to play more like a post player. Junior Michael Dixon, who sees himself as a starter, agreed to come off the bench.

Rather than sulking about his injury, Bowers embraced the role of supporting his team from the sidelines. Bowers sits on the end of the bench during games, standing up and flicking his towel after every Missouri basket. During timeouts, he talks to his teammates about things he noticed.

Before Saturday's Big 12 tournament championship game, Bowers tweeted, "Went from a starter on the team to a manager on the bench. Have to grab chairs during timeouts and take towels but anything for my team #MIZ."

Bowers' attitude is the best example of what makes the team so unique. It is truly a team, a group of guys working together toward a common goal.

"That's how it's been all year," English said. "We've been dialed in with what we have to do in the process. We've really truly been focusing on each game, and to dive deeper on that, each possession."

Missouri (30-4) plays its first NCAA Tournament game at 3:40 p.m. Friday against No. 15 seed Norfolk State (25-9). If the Tigers win, they will face either No. 7 seed Florida (23-10) or No. 10 seed Virginia (22-9) on Sunday.

Despite low preseason expectations, Haith has Missouri in a position to make a run at its first Final Four.

"It worked out perfectly, like a story book," English said. "The perfect thing happened."

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