Haith says SEC is disrespected, wants players to embrace NIT opportunity

Sunday, March 16, 2014 | 9:49 p.m. CDT; updated 6:32 a.m. CDT, Monday, March 17, 2014

COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Frank Haith didn’t know what fate to expect for his team when he turned on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday evening.

When he saw fellow Southeastern Conference member Tennessee unveiled as a No. 11 seed, as part of a play-in game, Haith lost any hope that his Tigers would receive a coveted bid to the 68-team tournament.

"When I saw Tennessee become an 11 and Kentucky’s an (8), I just felt like they didn’t have a lot of respect for our league," Haith said while meeting with reporters Sunday night. "I think our league is better than what it’s perceived to be. It’s unfortunate."

Underrated or not, only three SEC teams – Florida (the top overall seed), Kentucky and Tennessee – will play in the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri (22-11, 9-9 SEC) wasn’t selected ­– this will be its first absence from the tournament since 2008 – but the Tigers' season isn't over just yet.

For the first time since 2005, Missouri will be participating in the National Invitation Tournament. The Tigers received a No. 2 seed and will host No. 7 seed Davidson (20-12, 15-1 Southern) at 8 p.m. on Tuesday at Mizzou Arena in the first round of the 32-team field.

The SEC was the seventh-ranked conference in terms of RPI this year (last among power conferences). Missouri's predictable exclusion from the big dance ended its school-record tying streak of five consecutive tournament appearances.

While Missouri fell short of its goal to reach the NCAA Tournament, Haith still views the NIT as an opportunity for the Tigers, who went 3-4 down the stretch following a three-game winning streak in mid-February that appeared to be the jolt that might catapult the team into the NCAA Tournament.

"There are a lot of teams that have unlaced their shoes and we get a chance to continue to practice, to get better with only one senior playing and I think it’s very important for our team to continue to play and compete for a championship," Haith said.

Senior reserve Tony Criswell, who did not travel with the team to last week’s SEC tournament, will "probably not" play in the tournament, Haith said.

Haith anticipates facing a Davidson team that will be excited about its postseason berth and its chance to play inside Mizzou Arena.

Davidson won the Southern Conference's regular season title, but was upset by Western Carolina in the league tournament. The Wildcats rank 29th nationally with 78.6 points per game and are 22nd in field goal percentage at (.480). Senior forward De'Mon Brooks leads the team with 18.7 points per game, including shooting  46.7 percent from 3-point territory. The Wildcats have four players averaging 10-plus points per game and they each shoot at least 37 percent from behind the arc.

The winner of Tuesday night's opening-round match will face the winner of No. 3 Southern Miss and No. 6 Toledo.

Missouri has one common opponent with Davidson: Georgia. The Tigers lost both of its matchups with the Bulldogs, while the Wildcats defeated Georgia 94-82 in a neutral-site game in November.

Missouri’s slim chances at securing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament likely disappeared after the Tigers were eliminated in the SEC tournament quarterfinals with a 72-49 loss to No. 1 Florida on Friday afternoon.

Seven of Missouri’s 11 losses came against teams that also did not make the field. Those losses, along with the team having just two wins against teams in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), were the Tigers’ undoing.

Haith is glad his team gets to participate in some form of postseason play, but reiterated Sunday night that the NCAA Tournament remains the standard for his program.

"I never waver from that (standard)," Haith said. "It’s a standard for a lot of programs and we’re no different than North Carolina or any of those programs, but when we have a chance to play in the NIT, we want to embrace it and that’s what we want our guys to understand."

This will be Missouri's eighth appearance in the NIT. The Tigers are 1-7 all-time in the tournament, with the lone win coming against Murray State in 1996.

This will be Haith’s fifth NIT appearance as a head coach, the previous four coming at Miami. His teams went 5-4 in those games, never getting past the quarterfinals. He won an NIT championship as an assistant at Wake Forest in 2000.

Supervising editor is Mark Selig.

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