Mizzou proves naysayers wrong, stipends for athletes, more mailbag
Admittedly, I severely underestimated Missouri's toughness, savvy and chemistry
Compensating student-athletes as if they're professionals should not be allowed
An undefeated Murray State squad would likely earn a four seed for the NCAAs
It has been a few weeks since I opened up the mailbag, so we might as well begin at the top. Well, maybe not the very top, but at the No. 2 spot, where the Missouri Tigers reside. Despite its ranking, Mizzou is arguably the top story in college basketball right now.
It's about time you stopped dissing Missouri and woke up to reality. Sure, the team is unconventional, with the four-guard lineup and an undersized "big" inside, but they play unselfishly and with great spirit. Frank Haith is remarkable -- taking basically the same roster and turning the team from a lackluster, middle of the pack group into, well, number two. I'm under no illusion that Missouri will win it all, and there will be bumps in the road, but they deserve far more credit than you've offered until (almost grudgingly) now.
-- John, Columbia, Mo.
Hey, I wrote it, I'll own it. During my annual Hoop Thoughts Stock Report three weeks ago, I not only rated Missouri a "Sell," but I also deemed it an "easy call." My logic: "Missouri has shot the ball extremely well so far, but the Tigers have very little height and even less depth. That is going to bite them on the rear end at some point."
While it's true the Tigers got pushed around in their lone defeat at Kansas State, the only rear end that is being nipped these days is mine. In the wake of Mizzou's win at Baylor (Missouri only won by a point, but the game wasn't nearly that close), it's apparent that, like many other so-called experts, I severely underestimated this team's toughness, savvy and chemistry.
If anybody deserves to bite my rear end, it's Missouri coach Frank Haith, who I'm sure is an avid reader of my columns. I was lucky to catch Haith on his cellphone Tuesday night. He was in Stillwater, where his Tigers are preparing to take on Oklahoma State tonight. Ever the gentleman, Haith declined my invitation to serve up some crow, but he did pass along some insights to explain why his team is riding high despite having "very little height and even less depth." To wit:
The Tigers are not overly reliant on making three-pointers. According to Kenpom.com, they are ranked 90th in the country in three-point rate, which divides the number of three-pointers attempted by the number of shots attempted. Yes, they're second in the Big 12 in threes made per game (8.2), but they're also second in three-point percentage (39.6). So they're not just jacking it up. Their best outside shooters, Marcus Denmon and Kim English, are both taking between 52 and 57 percent from three-point range, but nobody else is over 50 percent.
Therefore, Missouri is not as susceptible to losing should it suffer a bad shooting night, which is inevitable during the NCAA tournament. "We don't take a lot of threes," Haith said. "We play inside-out and get to the free throw line. That's our formula, and it's why we've been successful on the road."
They are a solid rebounding team. Notice I didn't say excellent, just solid. But when you can score like Missouri can (the team's 83.1 points per game ranks fourth nationally), solid is more than good enough.
The Tigers are out-rebounding opponents by 3.2 per game and they rank 122nd nationally in offensive rebound percentage. They have been out-rebounded just twice in Big 12 games. The first was in their loss at Kansas State, the second when they shot the lights out in a win over Texas.
How is it possible that a team that starts four guards and whose center is 6-foot-8 has been holding its own on the boards? "Because we talk about it a lot," Haith said. "You hear that I keep talking to you about it. When we have a film session, that's the one thing we emphasize the most. We show bad blockouts, good blockouts, and we grade all of it. If you emphasize it every day as a coach, your players will understand it's important."
Ricardo Ratliffe has been a man's man. When the Tigers lost at Kansas State, Ratliffe, a 6-8 senior, got into foul trouble, attempted just one shot and had one rebound in 14 minutes. By contrast, Ratliffe was a man among boys in the win at Baylor last Saturday, putting up 27 points (on 11-for-14 shooting) and eight rebounds. That shows you how valuable he is to this team. On the season, Ratliffe is making an astounding 77.2 percent of his shots. If he stays at that clip, he will set a new NCAA Division I record.
How can a player with limited height and athleticism be so unstoppable as a scorer? "He catches the ball on the move as well as anybody I've ever been around," Haith said. "He's not such a great jumper, but he's quick, he understands angles, and he's a strong kid." Not surprisingly, Haith believes much of Ratliffe's improvement has occurred between his ears. "Trust is a big word for Ricardo, whether it's with his teammates or coaches," Haith said. "He had to develop that. He's one of those guys who's hard on himself. In the past, if things didn't go his way he would go in the tank a little bit. He's learning to move on to the next play."
They have great chemistry. This is one area where Haith believes the lack of depth (they only have seven players on scholarship) has actually been helpful. "There's something to be said when you only have seven guys," he said. "Everybody knows they're going to play. Everybody knows what their role is."
Trust and chemistry go hand-in-hand. That's why Haith believes this team benefited from the two days of team-building exercises he put his guys through under the direction of some Navy SEALS. He got the idea from his assistant, Ernie Nestor, who had been a part of the same experiment while he was on staff last season at Penn State.
The SEALS came to Columbia in September and conducted one day of exercises outdoors and a second day in an indoor pool. That was especially frightening for Ratliffe, who can't swim. "They did exercises where they put him in the water and he had to trust his teammates," Haith said. "They put all these sweatshirts on the guys, and you have to take them off and put them back on. I really think it helped our team."
They're well-coached. Bob Knight recently tried to make this point to Haith after Knight called a Missouri game for ESPN. When Haith tried to brush him off and compliment his own players, Knight interrupted and said, "I'm not part of the media, y'know, I'm a coach. I know what coaches do. You are coaching this team."
Haith admits that it was a challenge to get his players to buy what he was selling after he took over for Mike Anderson. "It's not an easy deal," he said. "They won playing a certain way, and we weren't going to play that way. It took time."
In the end, Haith knows how lucky he is to have players that are not only this good but also this mature. His starting lineup includes four seniors and a sophomore, and he brings a junior and senior off the bench. Seniors aren't just smart, they're desperate. This is their last go-round. They have no choice but to be all in.
Haith said he has been getting calls from coaches around the country encouraging him to enjoy the ride. As for all those experts (cough, cough) who have doubted him, whether by questioning the school's decision to hire him in the first place or his team's ability to keep winning, Haith isn't going to waste his energy gloating. "I'm just happy and grateful and feel very humble by the opportunity I have," he said. "We've got super kids. They're competitive and they're excited to learn. I just want them to stay focused and keep getting better."
So there, John from Columbia. Have I answered your question?
On to the rest of the Mailbag.....