2012 NCAA TOURNAMENT GUIDE
Despite playing with a first-year coach and an unconventional offense, Missouri has its best shot at the Final Four—and maybe more—in its long history. That’s because every Tiger has gone …
ALL IN By Steve Greenberg
MISSOURI TIGERS: DAK DILLON / US PRESSWIRE; ENGLISH: DAK DILLON / US PRESSWIRE
2/29/12 8:40 AM
his is a story about a torn ACL. About vomit. About brothers. About friends. About sacrifice. About rejection. About the end of an era and the discovery of something magical. About a coach exceeding all expectations, including his own. About a team—a tiny team—coming up huge, time and again. Mostly it’s about three seniors, a junior and a sophomore, four of them starters, all of them guards— the collective engine that’s powering Missouri through the best season in the program’s 106-year history. The Tigers have never won an NCAA Tournament; though they’ve reached the Elite Eight five times (most recently in 2009 and 2002), they’ve never even made it to a Final Four. This season—Missouri’s last before leaving the Big 12 for the football-oriented SEC—all of that could change. The Tigers are all in. That’s what they say upon breaking every practice or game huddle: “All in.”
For college basketball’s most unorthodox national championship contender, those aren’t empty words. Set against the goliaths at Syracuse, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and elsewhere, the Tigers are too talented, too explosive, to be called Davids. “When Missouri is on,” says Baylor coach Scott Drew, “there is nobody as good as them in the country offensively—nobody.” But they sure are short. They got shorter when 6-8 forward Laurence Bowers tore an ACL in October and was lost for the season. First-year coach Frank Haith, with one NCAA Tournament victory in seven years at Miami on his resume, made the determination to go small— dangerously small. Haith hadn’t been Missouri’s first choice to replace Mike Anderson, nor had he been particularly well-received by the Tigers faithful. The hire wasn’t exactly applauded by the national media, either. His decision to go guard-crazy was a roll of the dice that has paid off enormously. But first, each of those guards had to go all in.
THE SHOOTING GUARD-TURNED-POWER FORWARD
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English is undersized compared with the power forwards he has had to guard, yet he still has improved his overall game this season.
bigger, to be tougher. It became more urgent after Anderson wasn’t a big fan of the way Kim English Bowers got hurt—Haith wanted English, at only 200 approached the game. His defense and rebounding pounds, to become a forward. Or, more accurately, were unreliable. According to Haith, the 6-6 shooting considering English still identifies himself as a guard “hunted shots”—often difficult ones, which shooting guard, to defend opposing power forwards. many coaches know as the SportsCenter Syndrome. As English describes his mindset since, As a junior, his scoring average dropped from 14.0 paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling: “ ‘If you can lose and to 10.0 in 0.0 despite spite 1a slight light dincrease ncrease a ineminutes. inutes. s iThe he m T assessments, and are nd the heareality eality off those those r numbers, umbers, to n re a never speak a word of your loss, but stoop down and build them up again with worn-out tools.’ And that’s pretty pr tty harsh. arsh eh . But the he rejection ejectio t English nglish r nexperienced xperienced in n eE2011 011 was as i 2what w I did.” The results have been off the charts. In a win at harsher. Having entered avingH ntered his is name eame into ntohthe nhe NBA BA i draft raft t N d pool after fter his isajunior unio season, heaso j , rthe he Baltimore altimo nt se native Bative rwas as n Texas w in late January, English wowed Haith with told, essentially, ssentially, e that hat hee wasn’t t hready eady for o rthe he league. eagu r f. l hisetefforts guarding two players when teammates double-teamed on ball screens. In the following game Then, in Colorado Colo., in Colo ado Springs, r n July, uly, J he i e was hasw cut during uring USA dS Basketball asketball UA tryouts ryouts for to the he World Bo rfld W r vs. t Kansas, English battled with the monstrous combo University after Univers ty Games. ames. i All ll this his G A ftert a Tigers ig ars season easo a e s nof T Thomas Robinson (6-10) and Jeff Withey (7-0)—and up into a trash can at halftime. After the Tigers that had ad been eenhdisappointing isappointing b dto o say ay the he least, east, t s t threw l completed a late-game comeback to beat the Jayhawks, with a .500 500 Big ig 122 record aeco d and nd B1 ar one-game or. e-game a na English saw students preparing to rush the court and appearance in n the he Big ig Dance. iance.t B D frantically waved them back into the stands. “I was as crushed,” rushed,” w English cnglish says. ays. E “My My first irst “s f He was acting like he’d been there before, even two years ears here ere were yere so ho good, ood, w so o sgreat. reat. g s Last ast g L he hadn’t. Not in this same way. year, I thought to hought I wee were ere going w t oing w o bee so go good, ood, t b s though g English has been leaned on and banged around and in n turn urn wee were ere i tso o bad. ad. wwWee swere ere b Wselfish; elfish; w s players all season, and he not only has held we didn’t Itt was idn’t play lay together. dog ther. p etas aIrecipe ecipe w for o adisaster. isaster.rf r by bigger d his own but And I was I was as just ust so o down. Iown. j sI was asw dmiserable. Iiserable. m was sick. ck. I s w i also has become a profoundly better I couldn’t I didn’t ouldn’t sleep. leep. c idn’t s Ilike ike basketball asketball l d anymore. bnymo e. aI r Iplayer in the process. went out ut to o Colorado olo o ado t Springs prings Cr unprepared—I nprepared—I S u wasn’t asn’t w “I can’t imagine a coach having an opportunity to coach a better player than Kim English as far prepared. I didn’t idn’t Iplay lay well ellpand nd d wasn’t asn’t w a surprised.” urprised.” ws as what he does all-around,” Haith says. “Look In Columbia olumbia hee reconnected Ceco nected h r with nith Haith, aith, who’d w ho’d H w at what he’s doing now: taking good shots (a 49.8 recruited him im while hile att Miami. h iami. The M ahe w coach oach T had ad been ceen h b percentage, way up from 38.3 his first working in wo king on English r nglish since once arriving rriving n satt aMissouri issouri i M E an April. pril.i field-goal A “He was as the he first irst wplayer layer t fI talked p alked to,” o,”I Haith aith says. ays. t H“II “sthree seasons), sharing the ball, taking charges. That was very to ery simple mplev with ith him: s im: ‘If If wwe i e want ‘ant h w o win, in, wyou ou t w y doesn’t go unnoticed by his teammates. have to o buy uy in.’ n.’ Kimmie timmie b Kmay i ay not ot admit dmit m this, his, n a but ut we t eb w“If you’re an NBA scout, you see his skill set; had some times o e tough oughm imes s t in n that hat summer tummer i sright t ight away wayr ayou know he can shoot the ball. Now you’ve got to as far ar ass what hatfI wanted aanted w Ihis is commitment o mitment w hcm to o tlook at what he’s done this season from a toughness standpoint. Is he physically and mentally tough? this team eam to o be.” e.”t b t Man, you can’t doubt that in his game now.” Part of that was for English to play
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2012 NCAA TOURNAMENT GUIDE
THE BROTHERS PRESSEY They arrived in Columbia together—Matt Pressey, a Phil Pressey (above left) junior college All-American as a decided to stick around sophomore, and younger brother for his brother’s senior season at Mizzou, and the Phil, a blue-chip high school result has given opponents recruit—to play for the man they headaches. called Uncle Mike. Their father, former Milwaukee Bucks star Paul Pressey, had roomed with Anderson at Tulsa, where they played for Nolan Richardson, and remained one of the coach’s closest friends. Matt and Phil started 10 and 12 games, respectively, for Anderson in 2010-11—a season that was frustrating for Phil, a 5-10 freshman point guard. His playmaking skills weren’t altogether valued in the defense-oriented 40 Minutes of Hell system Anderson had learned from Richardson over 20 years as an assistant at Tulsa and Arkansas. But the Pressey boys—and their father— remained in Anderson’s corner, and when Anderson left last year to coach Arkansas, it was widely speculated that Phil, with most of his college career still in front of him, also would head to Fayetteville. “He was a little frustrated when it happened,” Paul Pressey, now a Cleveland Cavaliers assistant, says, “and, of course, we were all disappointed by it. The timing was unfortunate. Phil was disappointed. I said, ‘Look, you are a Missouri Tiger. Wait and visit with the new coach, whoever he is, and decide at that point.’ ” Haith came on board and told the kid called Flip: “I see you as the orchestrator, the conductor, the leader of what we do offensively.” Flip liked the sound of that. And he told his parents: “I don’t want to sit out a year, and I want to play with Matt his senior year.” The younger Pressey has since established himself as one of the top lead guards in the country,
averaging 6.1 assists and scoring 9.9 points per game. Drew marvels at his “unbelievable court vision” and adds the ultimate compliment to a playmaker: “He makes all of his teammates better.” Interestingly, the teammate who benefits least from Flip’s play may be Matt. Of the five guards in Missouri’s rotation, Matt Pressey attempts by far the fewest shots. Like his father, who was the Bucks’ lockdown defender, the older Pressey is a “glue guy”—words spoken by both the father and Haith. “His value to our team is that he’s our best defender,” Haith says. “You can’t win without a glue guy.” “What I do here at Missouri is different from what the outside world sees,” Matt says. “What I sacrifice here to help this team win is a lot more than what people see. I could go out there and put up 15 shots and do really well.” Can it be easy for a senior to plug away while his little brother blows up into a campus celebrity? Matt—who is 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Flip—owned their one-on-one battles throughout most of high school, both say. Unlike with the Griffin brothers at Oklahoma a few years ago—senior plugger Taylor and sophomore soonto-be No. 1 NBA draft pick Blake—there isn’t such a wide talent gap between the two. “Matt is a special young man because of those dynamics, with the younger brother getting the praise,” Haith says. But, no, it’s not easy for him. “Not at all,” Matt says. “Phil will make two or three good passes and then he’ll do a no-look, behind-theback pass, and I’ll be like, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ That’s not how I play. But, at the end of the day, he’s doing more good for us than he’s doing bad. “My brother gets the hype and the pub and things like that. That’s fine; it’s going to happen. I never take it personal. That’s my little brother—I want him to do well. I want him to get the pub. And if we do well and win, everybody gets the glory.”
At home, Paul Pressey says, his boys are “inseparable.” They aren’t often apart on campus, either; plus they’re usually in the presence of several of their teammates. Especially their fellow guards. “The biggest thing that helps us on the court is we’re just so together,” Matt says. “Most teams have different cliques: three here, two there, four here; ‘this guy’s like this or that.’ That’s the problem around the country— guys don’t want to play with each other. That’s the farthest thing from a problem here. “We love each other, man. What we have as far as a set of guards is hard to find. Unselfish guards. Guys try to get each other open; guys want to see the other guys make shots. I think that puts us in the top ranking of sets of guards across the country.” It wouldn’t be so—couldn’t be so—without 6-1 junior Michael Dixon and his best friend, 6-3 senior Marcus Denmon. “Phil and Matt are brothers,” Dixon says, “and I consider Marcus my brother.” But, although they are the Tigers’ most explosive scorers, Dixon’s and Denmon’s experiences at Missouri don’t bear much resemblance. They were backcourt mates in AAU ball in Kansas City, where Denmon would be named the metro area’s player of the year as a high school senior and Dixon would be crowned the state’s Mr. Basketball a year later. Denmon’s career has stayed on an incline since. He was a rotation regular on the 2009 Elite Eight team, an outstanding sixth man as a sophomore and an AllBig 12 first-teamer as a junior. Now? He leads the Tigers in scoring (18.0), is a ferocious rebounder (5.1) for his size and is pretty clearly their top all-around player. It was in Denmon’s nature to go all in with Haith more immediately than most. He is the embodiment of Haith’s definition of toughness: “It’s about doing the little things all the time,” the coach says. “Winning the 50-50 balls. Diving on the floor. Helping your teammate off the floor every time.” With Denmon mired in a midseason shooting slump, Haith told him not to worry, to focus on the little things. So that’s what the senior did, and then his stroke returned at just the right time. In that giant win over Kansas, Denmon hit five of his first six shots as well as his final three—a layup and two 3-pointers in the game’s final 2:05—and finished with 29 points and nine boards. It’s no wonder Denmon made the same World University Games team that didn’t have room for English. “He has incredible will and incredible heart,” Dixon says. And an all-in mentality that wouldn’t allow him to big-time a teammate. He praises the other Tigers, particularly English, regularly but seldom speaks of his own accomplishments. In a press conference after the KU game, he raved about English’s defense, bringing smiles of appreciation to his senior teammate’s—and their coach’s—face.
PRESSEYS PORTRAIT: DAK DILLON / US PRESSWIRE; PRESSEYS ACTION: L.G. PATTERSON / AP
3/3/12 11:56 AM
DIXON, DENMON: PETER G. AIKEN / GETTY IMAGES; DIXON: DAK DILLON / US PRESSWIRE; DENMON: ALONZO ADAMS / AP; RATLIFFE: ORLIN WAGNER / AP
With Dixon (11), one of the best sixth men in the country, and Denmon in the game, the Tigers can have two clutch scorers on the court.
“I think I’m around a bunch of winners,” Denmon says. None more so than Dixon, it turns out. His career hasn’t inclined, at least not by conventional standards. He was Anderson’s starting point guard for most of his sophomore season. Now he’s neither a starter nor, necessarily, a point guard—the position he’d thrived in his whole basketball life. Dixon found out before the exhibition opener in late October that he was going to be Haith’s sixth man, and that when he and Flip Pressey were on the floor together, Flip would be the guy with the ball on a string. “You’re still going to play starter minutes,” Haith told him. “The only thing you don’t get is to hear your name called out.” Easy for Haith to say, of course. “It hurt,” Dixon says. “I didn’t want to come off the bench.” This is no ordinary Joe we’re talking about. As a sophomore, Dixon was a double-figures scorer with nearly as many steals as turnovers and almost twice the assists. In a four-game run of clutch wins for the Tigers over Texas, KU, Oklahoma and Baylor, he averaged about 16 points and five assists in a little less than 29
minutes. At times, he carried the Tigers toward their status as one of the nation’s top teams. How does he feel now about not starting? “I’m not glad about it. No, not at all. I guess I’m content. I’m just content. I mean, from the looks of it, it’s not going to change anytime soon. “But this isn’t really about me; it’s about the team. If this is what I have to do for us to win, then so be it. Coach Haith has done an amazing job, and I trust him.” This story is, in fact, a lot about Haith, who was only 43-69 in ACC play at Miami but entered the stretch run of his first season in Columbia as a favorite for national coach of the year honors. He says he hasn’t heard the talk: “And I mean that sincerely. As well as I didn’t listen when people said I shouldn’t be here.” The 46-year-old has done nothing but walk the walk since arriving in Columbia. It seems to be in his nature, too. As one of 10 siblings, he learned the necessities of cooperation and self-sacrifice. As a young man who paid his own way through Elon College—even working there as a student-assistant with the basketball program—it was go all in or go bust. One other thing about Frank Haith, in case you’ve never gotten a good look at him: He sure is short. How perfect is that?
“How much you want to bet I make this shot?” Ricardo Ratliffe’s feet are all the way off the court; he’s a good 30 feet from the basket when he turns to a reporter who has yet to meet him and offers a hello by way of this challenge. Swish. Hmm. So the 6-8, 240-pound Missouri senior can shoot like that yet hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer all season? It actually makes quite a bit of sense. The Tigers can’t have Ratliffe—who was 4-for-15 from long range as a junior—hoisting 3s, not when he’s the lone big man in their starting lineup. And we’re using big rather loosely. Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey are big. Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger is big. Syracuse’s Fab Melo, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller and John Henson: big, big, big, big. Ratliffe isn’t small; we’ll give him that. And—apart from a solid role player off the bench in 6-9, 267pound senior Steve Moore—he’s the only nonguard who plays for coach Frank Haith. The Tigers need every one of Ratliffe’s 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game; he is relied on by his team in a way that’s unique among all the players who’ll participate in the NCAA Tournament. “It doesn’t make me nervous. I look forward to it,” he says. “I think I’m doing pretty well so far. I like that he has faith in me to put that weight on my shoulders.” At the heart of Ratliffe’s contributions on offense is his second-best-in-the nation field goal percentage of 71.0. A couple of days before the regular-season opener, Haith called Ratliffe into his office and pointed out that his shooting percentage in the exhibition season was about the same as guard Marcus Denmon’s. “But Marcus was shooting jump shots,” Ratliffe says, “and I was shooting layups.” Not good enough. So the coach laid out what might have seemed at the time to be an unrealistic expectation: “He wanted me to shoot 65 percent.” Yikes. Thus, no 3s. Ratliffe, who shot a more than respectable 57.1 as a junior, took it to heart. “(Haith) knew I could be a better finisher,” he says. “I’ve been trying to do it all year. We’ve got such great shooters who can stretch out the defense, it’s hard for (opponents) to play any kind of defense on me besides one-on-one. Either our shooters are going to knock down the shot or I’m going to try to finish the layup.” — Steve Greenberg
Missouri’s guards get the attention, but Ratliffe will play a key role in how long the Tigers last in March.
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