COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Frank Haith was asked at a press conference Wednesday afternoon if last Friday’s closer-than-expected 92-79 preseason victory against Central Missouri was troublesome enough to raise any red flags.
Haith was quick to dispel the notion.
Who: Southeastern Louisiana Lions
Last season's record: 13-18 (Fourth in Southland Conference)
Famous alumnus: Robin Roberts, Good Morning America anchor. Graduated cum laude in 1983.
Lone NCAA Tournament appearance was a first-round loss to Oklahoma State in 2005
“Duke was down to Drury at the half, UNLV loses to Dixie State, Kentucky was only up eight to Transylvania and they’re No. 1 in the country. If I would be panicking, I think every other coach in the country would panic, too,” Haith said.
The Missouri head coach is set to miss the team’s next five games because of a suspension levied by the NCAA.
Haith's return is a certainty. But just what type of team to expect when he does, remains a mystery with the regular season set to tip Friday at Mizzou Arena against Southeastern Louisiana.
“There’s no alarm. I think it’s crazy to have an alarm right now. I think our talent level is good and I like our team,” Haith said.
Yet there are many questions the Tigers will have to answer in his absence. Who will play in the post and how effective can they be? Can someone not named Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson or Earnest Ross score consistently?
Brown and Ross are the only Tigers to reach double figures in scoring in both preseason games. The trio of Brown, Clarkson and Ross combined to score 103 of the team’s 165 preseason points (62 percent).
“It’s been just a few games thus far, our big men are definitely capable of scoring,” Jabari Brown said. “We’re not thinking in our minds ‘Oh, we’ve got to score certain amount of points.’ You just got to go out there and play, and whatever happens, happens.”
Outside of Brown, Clarkson and Ross, the team’s next leading scorer is true freshman power forward Johnathan Williams III. Williams III, a lanky native of Memphis, Tenn., started both games and averaged nine points. If Williams III is in the starting lineup Friday, he’d become the first Tiger freshman to start a season opener since Jason Horton in 2004.
So far, Haith has been impressed by Williams III.
“He’s got a little L-Bo (Laurence Bowers) in him,” Haith said of Williams III. “I think he has a chance to do some things like Laurence in terms of he can dribble into a post up, he’s got a good skill set. He really goes and rebounds the ball, too. I like that about him.”
With senior forward Tony Criswell suspended for Friday's season opener and center Keanau Post limited in practice this week with an ankle injury, the Tigers will likely rely on Williams III early on. Haith warned, however, that Missouri's forwards could struggle to contain Southeastern Louisiana's shorter players.
“Some of these teams we play like Southeastern Louisiana, will be smaller and it will be harder for our big guys,” Haith said.
Fortunately for these Tigers, the roster is versatile, and they can downsize when needed. By moving Ross to power forward, inserting Wes Clark at point guard and moving Clarkson from the point to the shooting-guard position, Missouri can give themselves a better chance against speedier opponents.
Haith expects interim coach Tim Fuller to do just that on Friday night, especially as Southeastern Louisiana features a small, guard-oriented roster.
But no matter the lineup, Brown says the Tigers are just looking forward to improving on last weekend's performance and ultimately, achieving their goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
“We want to pick up our effort on both ends of the court, especially defense,” Brown said. “The good thing about basketball is you don’t go as long between games, so we’ll get a chance to improve on our efforts.”
Supervising editor is Sasu Siegelbaum.