By Jon Rothstein
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Frank Haith didn’t see this coming.
Not in the first month of the first season at a new school.
Not after losing starting power forward Laurence Bowers for the season with a torn ACL.
Haith, who took over as head coach of Missouri when Mike Anderson left for Arkansas last spring, has led the Tigers to a 7 and 0 start in which they have looked like one of the most cohesive and balanced teams in all of college basketball.
The results have shocked many, including Haith himself.
“No,” Haith said emphatically when asked if he thought his team would be playing this well this early in the season. “When you take over a team, it’s a transition. It’s been extremely gratifying so far, but we haven’t had to deal with any type of adversity yet.”
There’s a chance that could change after Tuesday’s night game against Villanova at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. The game against the Wildcats is ironic for many reasons, mostly because Haith has implemented a four-guard alignment this season for Missouri, something Wildcats coach Jay Wright began doing about six years ago.
“When Jay did it in 2005 and 2006 with Randy Foye and Allan Ray, they spaced everyone out and had great balance,” Haith said. “My last year at Miami we did some of that and I just carried that over to this team.”
A big reason why the transition has been so seamless for Haith and the Tigers has been the presence of Marcus Denmon and Kim English, two seniors who were rotation players on the 2009 Missouri team that lost in the Elite Eight to UCONN. Through seven games this season both Denmon and English are averaging career highs in points and rebounds.
“It’s a blessing to have them,” Haith said of Denmon and English. “They give us experience and talent.”
Much of their success can be attributed to the evolution of sophomore point guard Phil Pressey. After backing up Michael Dixon last season, Haith has allowed Pressey the autonomy he craved to flourish as a starter.
“I’ve put the ball in his hands and he’s ran with it,” Haith said of Pressey, who in his last two games has dished out 17 assists and only committed two turnovers.
It’s still just early December but between chemistry, seasoning, and an overall edge tthat they bring to the floor each time they play, it’s hard not to be optimistic about Missouri’s chances in a wide open Big 12.
“We’ve got a chance,” Haith said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
JIMMY V CLASSIC PREVIEW
MISSOURI VS. VILLANOVA
Guards, guards, and more guards. If you like perimeter play, this is the game for you. Missouri has gotten off to a blistering start thanks to the play of their experienced back court while Villanova has struggled at times early with their youth. This might be the youngest group of players Jay Wright has coached on the Main Line since his second year with the Wildcats and playing against a seasoned group like Missouri at Madison Square Garden figures to be too tall of task for his young team, who will only get better as the season progresses.
PREDICTION: MISSOURI 81, VILLANOVA 69
MARQUETTE VS. WASHINGTON
Buzz Williams isn’t going to try and get into a battle of skill with Washington but this is the year he finally might have the pieces to do it. Four members of Marquette — Darius Johnson-Odom, Vander Blue, Jae Crowder, and Todd Mayo are all shooting over 35 percent from three-point range, giving the Golden Eagles a tad more fire power than they’ve had the past few seasons. Still, Williams’ teams are known for being a reflection of him — tough and then tougher when it matters most. Against the Huskies, that will be enough for a quality non-conference victory.
PREDICTION: MARQUETTE 76, WASHINGTON 70
THIS AND THAT:
– It’s only been seven games, but right now Seton Hall’s Herb Pope looks like he’s ready for All-Big East First Team honors. The skilled power forward is doing a little bit of everything for the Pirates and averaging a staggering 20.9 points per game to go with 11.7 rebounds per outing. It will be interesting to see how opponents try to neutralize the big man when conference play begins at the end of the December.
– He may not reap the benefits of his production this season but Arkansas freshman guard B.J. Young is going to be a terrific player for the Razorbacks. The 6-foot-3 Young has been in double figures in six of seven games, including a 28-point outburst in last Saturday’s loss at UCONN.
– Tom Pecora and Fordham got a quality win last night over MEAC favorite Hampton. The Rams have kept their heads above water early in the season, despite not having the services of arguably their best freshman in combo guard Jeff Short, who should be back soon after a preseason injury. With Short back in the fold, Pecora should have a talented but young back court stable highlighted by three freshmen in Short, Devon “Fatty” McMillan, and Bryan Smith.
– Miami has gotten a big boost early from UMKC transfer Trey McKinney-Jones. The 6-foot-5 junior has excelled as big guard for Jim Larranaga and has made a signifigant impact on the backboards for the Hurricanes, who are still hoping to get starting center Reggie Johnson healthy for the bulk of the ACC schedule.
– Ryne Smith is emerging as legitimate third scoring option for Purdue behind Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson. After playing spot minutes for the first three years of his career, the 6-foot-3 guard has hit his stride early for the Boilermakers, complementing Jackson’s penetration skills with his own ability to make open shots from deep. Going into Tuesday, Smith was shooting over 50 percent from three-point range, while averaging 11.2 points per game, more than five better than last season.
Are you pumped for Missouri-Villanova? Let us know in the comments below!