2011-12 RTC Class Schedule: Missouri Tigers

Posted by zhayes9 on September 27th, 2011

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Is it possible for a head coach to be on the hot seat the day of his hiring?

Hook Frank Haith up to a lie detector and the answer would surely be in the affirmative.

Unless there were dozens of prospective candidates that privately turned down Missouri after Matt Painter abstained, Haith was certainly a curious second choice. While Miami doesn’t provide nearly the facilities or unending fan devotion as their ACC counterparts, a 43-69 career conference mark normally doesn’t result in a job upgrade. There’s no captivating NCAA Tournament run to highlight, either; Haith reached one NCAA Tournament in seven seasons at the helm and fell in the second round. In the eyes of Missouri AD Mike Alden, Haith’s wealth of experience as an assistant in the Big 12 at Texas A&M and Texas supersede the aforementioned red flags.

To make matters even more tenuous for the new Missouri coach, Haith’s name was mentioned in Nevin Shapiro’s bombshell allegations regarding the Miami football and basketball programs. Shapiro alleges that Haith had full knowledge of a $10,000 payment from Shapiro to secure the services of heralded recruit DeQuan Jones. Haith claims the allegations are “not an accurate portrayal of my character.” If the accusation did occur, Haith could be terminated for reasons that have nothing to do with conference record or on-court performance.

Despite this doom-and-gloom picture I just painted, there are actually plenty of reasons to be eager for the season to begin in Columbia. This team clearly has the ammunition to win a Big 12 that lacks a clear frontrunner with Baylor’s point guard issues, Kansas more vulnerable than at any time in the last decade and Texas A&M going through a coaching transition. In fact, with eight of their nine main contributors returning, Haith is walking into the best situation of any new head coach.

Haith needs to win at Missouri sooner than later

Team Outlook: There are tantalizing players lining the Missouri roster, but the only way the Tigers can truly make the next step into elite status is by improving their lackluster defense and winning more than one conference road game. A top-15 defensive team in 2010-11, Missouri fell to #65 last season and won just two road contests at Oregon and Iowa State. Hiring a coach whose Miami team placed ninth in the ACC in defensive efficiency is a head-scratcher. Marcus Denmon had a fantastic junior campaign, scoring nearly 17 PPG, shooting 50% from the field, making 45% of his threes and turning the ball over on a meager 8.2% of his possessions. Despite being undersized, Missouri is most effective when Denmon is teamed with Mike Dixon, a plucky 6’1 guard who posted elite assist and steal rates as a sophomore. Kim English has never been a model of efficiency, but he really scuffled shooting the rock in 2011-12 and needs to improve significantly. The frontcourt is bolstered by double-double threat Ricardo Ratliffe and the reliable Laurence Bowers, while Phil Pressey is a sparkplug off the pine. There’s depth, talent and plenty of promise on this roster. Whether they can adjust to a new system and toughen up on the road are lingering questions.

Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 4.5. Missouri non-conference schedule lacks any elite opponent, but five teams qualify as challenging on the slate. A partisan crowd in Kansas City will cheer on the Tigers as they clash with Notre Dame in the semifinal and likely California in the final of the CBE Classic. The Irish are adjusting to life without Ben Hansbrough and Carleton Scott, but feature a team likely to contend for an NCAA berth. Cal boasts explosive scorer Allen Crabbe and could win a wide open Pac-12. After another late-season collapse, a purging of players like Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes could be a blessing in disguise for Jay Wright and Villanova, Missouri’s opponent in the Jimmy V Classic. The annual border war with Illinois in St. Louis presents a slight challenge. The trickiest contest could be Missouri’s only true road game in Norfolk against Old Dominion, but the Monarchs are minus four starters from a season ago. Asking the Tigers to cruise through this non-conference slate with a maximum of one loss is reasonable.

Cupcake City: Other than those five somewhat docile games, Missouri doesn’t face any semblance of an intimidating opponent. All of their remaining non-conference games are at the friendly confines of Mizzou Arena where the Tigers compiled a stellar 75-13 record during Mike Anderson’s tenure. The only opponent from a respectable conference is William & Mary and they’re expected to take root near the basement of the CAA. Missouri finished the pre-Big 12 slate at 14-1 last season and ended up with a #11 seed and a first round knockout courtesy of Cincinnati, so the real test for Haith and Co. begins in January.

Toughest Early Season Test:  My gut tells me counting out Villanova is a grave mistake. The Wildcats are finally lacking significant expectations for the first time in a few seasons and could sneak up on more than one challenger, especially if guard Maalik Wayns and center Mouph Yarou show improvement. Most of the key cogs from previous collapses are history, hopefully ushering in a new culture of responsibility and accountability on the Main Line. Villanova may not boast the usual assembly line of talented guards, but any team overlooking Jay Wright’s squad could be in for a challenge.

Hardest Big 12 Stretch: Given their 1-7 road record in Big 12 play a season ago, any challenging stretch has to include multiple games away from Columbia. From January 7-25, four of Mizzou’s six contests come away from home, including a visit to the Octagon of Doom in Kansas State to face one of my breakout players in the country in Rodney McGruder. That’s followed up by a trip to wildly intriguing Iowa State and their surplus of talented transfers. On the other end of two home dates with Texas and Texas A&M are road games at Baylor and Oklahoma State. The Bears are undoubtedly the most talented team in the conference. If they can solve their point guard headache, re-establish that matchup zone with their length and receive lottery pick production out of Perry Jones, a trip to Waco will be Missouri’s toughest test all season.

Easiest Big 12 Stretch: I’m going to have to take a pass on this one. Check out their schedule here. Every time Oklahoma or Texas Tech pops up, a tough road game is just previous or right around the corner. While the home games are greater in frequency towards the end, trips to Texas A&M and Kansas quickly ratchet up the difficulty level. That’s the nature of the wide-open Big 12 this season sans Colorado and Nebraska: no alpha dog team but four or five potential contenders and very few pushovers. Missouri should be able to carry some momentum into the Big 12 Tournament with a home game vs. Iowa State and a trip to rebuilding Texas Tech rounding out the schedule.

Best Individual Matchup: Most expect Thomas Robinson to emerge as the next star in Lawrence. Despite being overshadowed by the Morris twins last season (not to mention dealing with a heartbreaking family tragedy in the middle of Big 12 play), Robinson notched 7.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG and shot over 60% from the floor in 14.6 MPG. Expect Robinson’s minutes and production to double as a junior. That’s how the program operates since Bill Self took the helm: Kansas loses key contributors either early in the draft or to graduation, experts assume this is finally the year the Jayhawks are knocked off the Big 12 pedestal, a former role player grabs the baton and becomes the next face of the program, and the cycle repeats itself. If Robinson does indeed grab hold of this opportunity, how much the length and athletic ability of Missouri bigs Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers frustrate Robinson could determine the outcome of their two matchups February 4 in Columbia and February 25 in Lawrence.

Most Challenging Road Test: Baylor certainly presents its own challenges and Kansas had a 69-game home winning streak snapped last season, but I’ll go off the board a bit and vote Texas A&M. Mark Turgeon is a huge loss, but Billy Kennedy never finished with less than 13 conference wins or lower than second place in five seasons at Murray State. He’s more than a capable replacement. Kennedy inherits a situation similar to Haith at Missouri with the potential to go nine-deep in the rotation and make quite a favorable impression during his first season at the helm. Incoming point guard Jamal Branch is a keeper while Washington transfer Elston Turner is primed to have an immediate impact. Two absolute gems are wing Khris Middleton and senior forward David Loubeau.

Upset City: Iowa State is an utterly fascinating experiment. Faced with a massive rebuilding project, hidden in the less-than-fertile recruiting grounds of Iowa and unlikely to out-gun competitors like Kansas and area Big Ten schools for premiere recruits, Hoiberg instead opted to assemble a Transfer All-Star Team that could pay immediate dividends. Royce White, the former headliner of a Tubby Smith class at Minnesota, seemingly has his head on straight and is a worthwhile gamble. Chris Allen started on Michigan State’s Final Four teams and brings perimeter shooting and the ability to lock down opposing guards. Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois) and Chris Babb (Penn State) also join the fun. Will Hoiberg be able to combine these various personalities into a winning concoction? If the talent keeps their head on straight and buys into the process, Missouri won’t be able to bank on Iowa State as a free road win on January 11.

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