February 28, 2012

Reconciled by Winning





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Missouri's season had been over for six days. The Tigers had been without a coach for approximately six hours. And then Kim English uttered the seven words that would come to define his senior season.

They appear on no billboards or t-shirts. They are not an official team motto. No Tiger has repeated them publicly. But asked how Missouri's players would come to grips with the fact that the man who recruited them, the man who had told everyone including his players that he was staying in Columbia, had suddenly bolted before their final college season, English had the answer.

"I think we'll reconcile it by winning."

With that, English, Marcus Denmon and Laurence Bowers got up and left the press conference they attended after Mike Anderson took the Arkansas job. The next time the public heard from any of them, the Missouri seniors-to-be were reacting to the hiring of Frank Haith. Most viewed it as the most pivotal day in a chaotic year for Missouri basketball. But perhaps that wasn't true. By the time Haith was hired, the gauntlet had already been thrown down inside the Missouri program.

"We were in the gym, in the weight room, out in the arena doing pickup and we decided before they even assigned coach Haith," fellow senior Ricardo Ratliffe said. "We put our heads together and we were like, 'It doesn't matter who comes in here, we're going to win basketball games and we're going to fight for a title next year.'"

"We understood that whoever we got we were going to win," Denmon said. "Not to say we didn't care, but we understood that we were going to make a point no matter who came in, we were going to win games."

"We were gonna win this year. We were gonna win," English said. "Coach Haith just molded it together and made it work and made it work beautifully. But we were gonna win this year. Because we hated how last year went. We hated how we fell apart as a team. We hated how we didn't defend or rebound. We hated how we quit in Kansas City when we lost to A&M. We hated that."

The players are quick to point out they are not trying to minimize Haith's role in this 25-and-4 season. Not at all.

"I think we were blessed to get coach Haith. Once he got here and got his coaching staff in place was when I really felt that this could be a special year," Denmon said. "I think coach Haith's been a really big part of it. Probably the biggest part of it."

"I feel that he's the perfect fit for us and I feel that he's a really good candidate for coach of the year," Ratliffe said. "People can see it because we get complimented all the time about how much closer we seem than last year. That's thanks to coach Haith."

"He's a great coach. Best coach I've ever been around, best coach I've had in college," English said. "Lucky. Lucky to have him for my last year. Just changed the culture around this program. I'm just following his lead. He coaches the right way, he makes us play the right way. It's easy to lead when all I'm doing is echoing the things that he says."

If English credits his coach, the coach credits the player.

"I will say the leadership on this team is spectacular. Kim English has been phenomenal in that regard. Marcus too, but Kimmie has been unbelievable," Haith said. "Leadership stems from how guys act when you're not around them. You need that locker room guy and I think Kimmie has been that guy for this team."

Haith says he is proud to be a part of this Missouri team, of this group of six seniors who will play their final home games on Wednesday night against Iowa State. Before he arrived, English, Bowers, Denmon, Steve Moore and Jarrett Sutton had been a part of 77 wins in three years. Ratliffe and Matt Pressey were junior college players who joined the program prior to last season. Bowers had his senior season delayed by a knee injury prior to the season, but the other six will be honored 20 minutes before tipoff against the Cyclones on Wednesday night.

"You look across the country, not all veteran teams win. There's a lot of teams across the country that have a lot of seniors, they don't win. Especially when there's transition," Haith said. "They've won a lot of games. They've won more than anybody in the history of the school. They're winners and they want to win. They've performed at a high, high level this year."

This group has lost only four home games in four seasons. But two of them have come on senior night. Kansas beat Missouri in the home finale each of the last two seasons. This time, it is not Kansas that stands in the way of the Tigers on senior night, but as they prepared for the game, the Jayhawks were still lingering on the players' minds.

"Tough adjustment from what happened Saturday and what's gonna happen Wednesday," English said. "I've never experienced one like Saturday, a loss that tough. Connecticut was like that, but never a loss that tough. You've got to forget about it. You can't dwell on it. You don't want to be so emotionally drained and fatigued that you lose a really important game here on Wednesday."

English, as he has for months, took the lead. After an off day Sunday, the Tigers were gathered prior to practice on Monday. Number 24 spoke, and they listened.

"I just told the guys in the locker room, we're not going to talk about it anymore," English said. "We're not going to replay the plays, we're not going to continue to dwell on what happened, what didn't happen, what should have happened."

And, yet, English's mind drifted involuntarily back to Saturday. Back to a 19-point lead gone awry. Back to calls made and others not made. Back to a Big 12 title that slipped out of Missouri's control and is now gone completely after Kansas' win over Oklahoma State on Monday night.

"I mean, we had the lead, man," English says, his voice fading. "We had the lead."

For this team, for a group of seniors that has won more games than any to ever come through Columbia, for their first-year coach, there is but one thing to do. Eleven months ago, Kim English defined the mission of his senior season. As his class says farewell to Mizzou Arena and enters college basketball's maddest month, they have reconciled what took place last March. They have done it in exactly the manner which English said they would, by winning games. A bunch of them. English insists they are not done.

"We want to win a lot more."

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