Back in April, when Missouri athletic director Mike Alden announced that he had hired Frank Haith away from Miami (Fla.) to replace Mike Anderson as the school's men's basketball coach, most MU fans had two questions: Who? Why? Then, well before Haith's first Tigers squad had begun fall practices, Alden's decision entered the realm of the sinister when questions emerged about Haith's role in the scandals at Miami. They are questions that have not yet been answered. But after Missouri's dominant early-season performance, those issues have been pushed into the background, at least for the time being.
A little dominance will do that. Missouri was ranked No. 21 in the most recent AP poll, so its not like the Tigers were completely off the national radar. Still, few could have foreseen that Mizzou would respond to its first two legitimate tests of the season by dispatching with Notre Dame and California by a combined 68 points. Yes, the games were in the CBE Classic in front of the friendly fans of Kansas City.And, yes, it's not yet even Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, this was as emphatic an early statement as any team has made so far in the embryonic college season.
Ken Pomeroy's Crazy Uncle had the Irish and Golden Bears rated 34th and 36th respectively in the preseason, and Cal was anointed as favorites in the tepid Pac-12. (Missouri was ranked 14th.) So these were no pushovers. Last year, Missouri's biggest combined margin of victory in back-to-back games against top-100 opponents was 49 points. KenPom's ratings and results go back to 2003 and there is nothing in those archives that comes close to MU's showing the last two nights, at least in terms of consecutive routs of quality opponents.
Notre Dame's loss on Monday was its worst in Mike Brey's 11-plus seasons. The Irish hadn't lost by that many since a 31-point pounding by Connecticut on Jan. 12, 1999, way back when John MacLeod was manning the sidelines in South Bend.
As for Cal, the 39-point shellacking generated a list of all sorts of worsts. This is from the AP:
- The 39-point margin of defeat equals the Bears' fourth-worst in a game since 1937. (Worst ever was 101-50 to Stanford, coached by current Bears coach Mike Montgomery, in 2000.)
-It was Cal's worst loss in 106 games under Montgomery, exceeding a 109-77 loss at Washington last year.
-It was Cal's worst nonconference loss ever.
So no matter how you want to contextualize it, Missouri's combined performance from the last two nights was simply amazing. What in the Haith is going on here?
When Anderson left for Arkansas, he left behind a solid core of talent in Columbia. Seven of last year's top eight players (in terms of playing time) were slated to return, but that number was reduced by one when senior big man Laurence Bowers went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. In a way, Bowers' injury may have been a blessing in disguise. Missouri would have no doubt been better in the long run with their top interior player in the rotation. But if Bowers had not gone down, Haith may not have had the inspiration to deploy a four-guard lineup, one that has given Missouri's early opponents fits.
In this configuration, the Tigers have a dazzling amount of team speed and quickness, and Haith has implemented a design that takes full advantage of these traits. Waterbug point guard Phil Pressey, top scorer Marcus Denmon, Tyronn Lee-facsimile Michael Dixon and sharpshooter Kim English combine to give Mizzou as quick of a group of perimeter players as any team in the nation. Haith's halfcourt system involves spacing the floor with four players, leaving lone interior player Ricardo Ratcliffe to man the middle.
So far, this has allowed Missouri to isolate mismatches and prevent defensive help. Opponents have been reluctant to play as small as the Tigers and there are always one or two defenders overmatched in terms of foot speed and lateral quickness. With the floor well spaced, there is plenty of room for each of those four players to take his man off the dribble, something which each does well. They are also all dangerous perimeter shooters, which makes packing back into a zone problematic. Notre Dame and Cal both switched to zone defenses after it became they had become unwillingly embroiled in a track meet. The tactic had little effect on the Missouri offense.
Ratcliffe is good enough as a post player to keep defenses honest in the paint. He's not as good as Bowers defensively, lacking the latter's length and explosiveness, but he's a much more polished scorer and rebounder. On Tuesday, senior Steve Moore emerged as a big man option for Haith, scoring 10 points in the first half against the Golden Bears. Moore is big, but he's always proven to be too immobile, unskilled and foul-prone to be more than an end-of-the-bench option. He looked reborn against Cal, even drilling a three-pointer when left alone at the arc at one point. It would have been less surprising for Missouri fans if retired coach Norm Stewart had dashed onto the floor dressed as a Goth pinup girl.
While Anderson's halfcourt attack involved working the ball around the perimeter, looking for the first open shot, Haith's design seems to involve more cutting, which also plays to the strengths of his roster. Missouri is getting many more looks at the basket which has the added effect of more trips to the foul line. When you are getting excellent shooters in postion to get easy shots, that's a solid recipe for efficient offense. And in addition to all that, having all those guards on the floor has led to Missouri posting one of the 10-best turnover rates in the nation.
Haith made the bold stroke of opting for Matt Pressey to pair with his brother in the Tigers' starting backcourt. Pressey is more of a defense-first type and his presence allows for a more balanced attack. Dixon comes off the bench and maintains and sometimes increases the tempo just as MU's opponents are beginning to feel winded.
The defense also appears better. Anderson's pressure defense was the signature of Missouri's teams over the last few years and the players on the current roster were obviously recruited to play that style. Under Haith, the defensive pressure is just as intense but more disciplined. His players sell out in terms of pressuring the ball and forcing opponents to go where they don't want to go, but there is very little trapping under Haith. This has resulted in fewer forced turnovers, but also far fewer defensive breakdowns, both in terms of avoiding wide-open looks and getting players in position to rebound. Last season, Missouri ranked ninth in forced turnovers, but 184th in opponents' eFG% and 317th in defensive rebounding. This year, the turnover ranking has dropped to 90th, but MU is 54th in limiting shooting percentage and 53rd in defensive rebounding.The end result is a 52-place jump in defensive efficiency. (Again, small sample caveats apply.)
There is of course a tradeoff in playing small--rebounding and interior defense. So far, Missouri's defensive pressure has offset deficiencies in these areas. Good shooting has offset an near-inability to get offensive rebounds, but on the defensive end, the rebounding is actually improved over past years for the reasons outlined above. However, the blueprint for beating the Tigers is clear: Control the tempo and pound the paint. Missouri's worst half of the season was its first, against Southeast Missouri. In that game, Missouri transfer Tyler Stone gave the Tigers fits in the lane. Stone has bulked up considerably from his days in Columbia and Mizzou probably wishes it could get him back. Missouri will face much better big men than that down the line.
After the directionless Quin Snyder years, Anderson's system was a welcome arrival in Columbia. The 40 Minutes of Hell approach is an exciting brand of basketball. Not always in a good way, but it's always interesting. Having a set system like that in place is in theory a nice building block because it allows you to scout and recruit talent that fits what you're trying to do. It also gives your school, or "brand" as now is the fashion, a calling card. This is Mizzou basketball.
After watching that style for a few years, the luster begins to wear off. The big problem is playing time distribution. Substitutions are made to give exhausted players a breather. Reserves shuffle in and out with regularity. If you have a deep roster, this can appear to be a good thing. The problem is that the top players on your team end up spending less time on the court than in other systems. This makes it more difficult to develop the sort of core foundation that is essential to championship-level teams. It can work of course. Nolan Richardson won a national title playing that way. Anderson took the Tigers to the cusp of their first Final Four just a couple of years ago. But it takes a kind of perfect storm. You're relying on scheme over talent and Norman Dale fanatics aside, talent is going to win out more often than not. I mean, even Hickory didn't really take off until Jimmy Chitwood started playing. Along those lines, if your top players are getting fewer minutes than they would be getting at other programs, it can only complicate the recruiting progress.
Many of the long-term concerns about Frank Haith remain. His tenure at Miami was decidedly mediocre. The five-man recruiting class signed by Haith for next season was lauded on the air by Dick Vitale during ESPN's telecasts the last two nights, but aren't ranked in the top 25 on the same company's recruiting Web page. There is the matter of the shenanigans at Miami, which may yet blow up Haith's gig in Columbia before it has a chance to take root. But for now, with the roster Haith inherited and tweaks he's made to the style his players were accustomed to, there is a real possibility that this will be a special season for the Tigers.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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