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Missouri's search for basketball continuity has been endless

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Revisiting a piece from two years ago. One day continuity won't be an issue for Mizzou basketball anymore. I have no idea when that day will come.

Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

This Twitter exchange between Gabe, Sam, and others triggered a memory of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. The punchline: man, we've been talking about continuity for a really long time.

Frank Haith took the Missouri job in April 2011, after a promising season came to a dud of a conclusion, after Mike Anderson's two-year flirtation with other jobs finally sent him out the door, after a demoralized but resolute set of Mizzou seniors sat in front of an athletic department mic and said they would "reconcile by winning," and after a dramatic tease of a coaching search that included SOURCES definitively saying that Purdue's Matt Painter was taking the job.

Granted, in the preceding years we've come up with different sources of demoralization, but it was a stunning, uncertain time to be a Missouri basketball fan.

It was also a tough time to be Mike Anderson's successor. Granted, whoever walked in the door was probably going to have a pretty good first season. Missouri was looking at returning seniors Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Laurence Bowers, Ricardo Ratliffe, Steve Moore and Matt Pressey, and junior-to-be Mike Dixon and sophomore-to-be Phil Pressey were ready to finish off a devastating backcourt.

The problem was that, beyond the seniors, here were the players on the roster when the 2010-11 season ended: Dixon, Pressey, sophomore-to-be Ricky Kreklow (who would transfer to Cal), and redshirt freshman Kadeem Green. (Krekow and Green would both soon transfer.) Star 2011 signee Tony Mitchell had failed to qualify, and in 2012 Anderson had missed out on in-state stars Brad Beal (Florida) and Ben McLemore (Kansas). His long flirtation with Sikeston's Otto Porter failed to secure a commitment before he left town. Porter eventually signed with Georgetown. Missouri had zero commits for the 2011 class when Haith took the job. I've always thought that the "Anderson totally quit recruiting" narrative was probably overblown, but whether he "quit" or not, he certainly hadn't produced anything that year.

So the cupboard was about to be bare. Granted, Bowers would end up playing in Haith's second season because he injured his knee and redshirted during 2011-12. But his return was balanced out by Dixon being a creep and getting asked to leave school as the 2012-13 season was beginning. So Anderson left Haith with a core that would play out like this:

  • 2011-12: Lots
  • 2012-13: Bowers, Pressey
  • 2013-14: Nothing

When you've got 13 scholarships to spend, inheriting a total of two bodies for your second year and zero for your third is an invitation for disaster. You not only have to establish new recruiting ties at a new school; you also have to sign a lot of guys. Add in the fact that Yahoo!'s report on Nevin Shapiro came out the August after Haith was hired -- which, if you recall Sam's great Tim Fuller piece last year, completely killed what was looking like a promising first recruiting class and forced Haith, Fuller, etc., to go to Plan B options -- and you've got a roster disaster.

Three years after Haith was hired, we had a pretty good understanding of two things: a) the difficult job Haith inherited when it came to balancing out the roster and b) the diminishing returns Missouri was getting on Haith's attempts. He brought in a load of transfers to balance out the classes -- Auburn's Earnest Ross, Pepperdine's Keion Bell, Oregon's Jabari Brown, Tulsa's Jordan Clarkson, JUCOs Tony Criswell and Keanau Post, Louisville's Zach Price, Baylor's Deuce Bello, Notre Dame's Cam Biedscheid -- and the approach worked pretty well for a while. But downright disastrous high school recruiting left Mizzou at a disadvantage.

Here are the high school recruits Haith signed while at Missouri: Negus Webster-Chan (2012), Stefan Jankovic (2012), Ryan Rosburg (2012), Domonique Bull (2012), Johnathan Williams III (2013), Wes Clark (2013), Torren Jones (2013), Shane Rector (2013), Jakeenan Gant (2014), Namon Wright (2014). A few were decent to good. A few were awful. A couple got kicked out of school. And one way or another, seven of the eight from the 2012-13 classes left. Gant and Wright might or might not stay.

It has clearly gotten even worse since Haith left. Kim Anderson hasn't made a huge impact yet (and obviously many don't think he ever will), and he inherited a ticking time bomb of an APR situation from Haith, who had inherited his own detonation fear from his predecessor.

You know all of this. But I laid all of this out for two reasons. First, it is truly an amazing thing to behold. Honestly. It took so many poor decisions and unlucky breaks to get to where Missouri is today.

Second, I wanted to lay out some thoughts before re-sharing the post below. It was originally titled "On Frank Haith's cruddy year." It was written on April 4, 2014, basically two weeks before Haith escaped town with the Tulsa job. I left it mostly untouched.

Man, we've been talking about continuity for a while. It's always just around the corner. And that corner never comes.

***

1. The dirt cloud follows you around sometimes. Gary Pinkel got a DUI, then his quarterback and entire offensive line got injured, his best player skipped some classes, his team had its worst season in almost a decade, and he found himself on the hot seat. Sometimes the muck follows a coach, and he can never overcome it. But sometimes he gets it washed off.

2. Gary Pinkel got it washed off. At this point, Frank Haith should invite any and all comparisons to Gary Pinkel that people want to make. When you have a cruddy year, and it looks like your program is inching down the road to "beyond salvage," Pinkel is proof that you can still salvage it.

3. Frank Haith had a cruddy year. It began with a Miami-related suspension, and it continued with a team that didn't have enough dimensions on offense to overcome its increasingly shaky defense. It then finished with a pair of regrettable incidents -- Wes Clark and Shane Rector getting suspended because of marijuana and Zach Price going to pretty impressive lengths to beat up his roommate. The former resulted in post-season suspensions, and we're still awaiting the fallout on the latter. Plus, Tony Criswell's father decided to rip Haith apart on national radio.

Both Criswell and his mother called in to defend Haith, so it's more or less a no-harm-no-foul situation, but it was a nice way to add some crazy to the mix just for the fun of it. That's four members of a 13-man team making headlines for reasons other than playing well. Meanwhile, the two best players on the team announced their intentions to either go pro (Jordan Clarkson) or test the waters (Jabari Brown), and the third-best player (Earnest Ross) used up his eligibility.

4. Be as frustrated and pessimistic as you want right now. You've got evidence for your opinion. Granted, others have evidence if they want to push back, but there is plenty to question and worry about in terms of the state of Mizzou Basketball under Frank Haith. The defense is sketchy (to put it kindly) and has been for three years. The offense is good but has slipped. The returns have diminished for two straight years. Haith's "evening the classes" approach has prevented a total collapse but hasn't maintained a high level of play. If you want to worry about these things, no one here is going to stop you. Just don't act like it can't all still turn around.

5. Haith will basically spend the next year putting the pieces together for a lovely team in 2015-16. Johnathan Williams III, Torren Jones, Clark, Rector, and Cameron Biedscheid will be juniors. Ryan Rosburg, Deuce Bello, and any JUCO transfer Mizzou signs in the next month or so (plus maybe Price) will be seniors. Incoming four-stars Namon Wright and Jakeenan Gant will be sophomores. In theory, that team could have all of the continuity Haith's last two teams have lacked and depth a Haith team has never had (including his first one).

6. The problem, of course, is that 2015-16 is another season away. As we've discussed before, Haith's fourth Mizzou squad will possibly be its third straight that is basically in serious transition. Haith lost six of his top seven players after Year 1, his top three players after Year 2, and if Brown indeed leaves, his top three players after Year 3. Ryan Rosburg will be his first third-year player; he'll also still be the only third-year player on the team. That's incredible, and while it's not all Haith's fault -- as has been discussed many times, Mike Anderson left him no incoming recruits, and Haith basically had two years to fill 13 scholarships for Year 3 -- it's enough his fault that he stops getting the benefit of the doubt very soon.

7. Yes, the Internet stopped giving him the benefit of the doubt a while back, but soon Mike Alden does, too. Alden is a patient guy, and his patience has done wonderful things for the Missouri athletic department. Unless you're willing and able to go out and spend $4 million a year on a slam-dunk, hired-gun coach the moment things take a downward turn, you must possess patience, and even if spending that big were an option, Missouri's basketball fanbase hasn't exactly proven itself worthy of a $4 million/year investment of late.

But Alden does have a breaking point as well, and it will be interesting to see if or when that might come. I doubt Missouri has to make the NCAA Tournament in 2015 for Haith to keep his job -- at least as long as the optimism for 2015-16 remains strong 12 months from now -- but it's probably safe to say that Haith can't have another altogether bad year, on and off the court, like he did in 2013-14. If hope is high for the future, Haith probably stays beyond Year 4.

8. What happens on the court obviously matters the most next winter, but Mizzou Basketball needs a good year off the court as well.

9. It's time for some community outreach. Perhaps the most heartening aspect of Missouri's unexpected 2009 run wasn't that the team was good; it was the way the players themselves connected with the community. One's mental slide show from that season includes pictures of great basketball, sure, but it also includes Demarre Carroll crying on Senior Day, Steve Moore and Laurence Bowers reading to local classrooms, Kim English hugging an older Mizzou fan.

The leaders of Missouri's 2013-14 team were not particularly outgoing; Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson come across as insular in their own ways, and while all indications are that they cared an enormous amount about the team's success and about their teammates, they weren't particularly engaging. And that's fine. You can't force someone to be something they're not. But whether or not Brown returns to Mizzou next fall, it would certainly help if members of the team had a more public face. Guys like Johnathan Williams III, for instance.

10. Attendance was a total disaster for Mizzou in 2013-14, and virtually every reason cited for this had a little basis in fact. Last season did end in frustrating fashion. There weren't many impressive non-conference games (and the UCLA game had the misfortune of taking place a couple of hours before the SEC Championship game). The 6pm weeknight tipoffs are absolutely awful; it's hard to get to a 6pm game if you work in Columbia, much less St. Louis and Kansas City.

The "too many transfers" theory is mostly poppycock, of course -- Demarre Carroll was a transfer. Jason Conley. Julian Winfield. Byron Irvin. Ricky Frazier. If we're including JUCOs, Paul O'Liney. Willie Smith. You don't need four years to connect with a player. If they're winning games, and if they're trying to connect with you, you'll connect. But the connection matters, and this team didn't have it.

11. There is still time for other things to go wrong, obviously, but this cruddy year is just about over. We'll see what happens with Brown and Price, and we'll see how Haith elects to fill the one to three scholarships he has remaining over the late signing period. And we'll see if some other player manages to do something particularly dumb in the coming weeks or months. Always possible.

But no matter what, Frank Haith faces a significant challenge over the next 12 months. He has to figure out how to craft a better defense. He has to figure out how to once again put together the pieces of another good offense, potentially without his three best offensive players. And his team has to connect with the community again. There are plenty of good kids and interesting stories here: Williams is by all accounts a great kid, Torren Jones has charisma to burn, Biedscheid gives Missouri another local kid to go with Rosburg and Danny Feldmann.

12. Frank Haith is not a bad coach. Even with all the transition and frustration, he has still won 46 games in two years and 76 in three and barely missed the NCAA Tournament this season. Even over just the last two years, his record (46-23) is better than Buzz Williams' (43-24) or John Thompson III's (43-22).

A turnaround, both in product and sentiment, is going to be difficult, but don't act like it isn't possible. Haith has some work to do to prove he's the guy to coach this potentially strong 2015-16 team -- 12 months from now, Alden may have justifiably concluded he is not -- but don't act like it can't be done. Be as skeptical as you want, but don't act like a turnaround is impossible.