STILLWATER — Frank Haith wasn't the hot hire many Missouri fans hoped for when coach Mike Anderson bolted for Arkansas last spring.
The reception turned even chillier when his old school, Miami, was linked to a booster alleged to have provided thousands of impermissible benefits to athletes – including a basketball player, with the booster claiming Haith's involvement – setting off NCAA alarms.
Look who's hot now.
Haith brings the nation's No. 2 team into Stillwater on Wednesday night, with the 18-1 Tigers taking on Oklahoma State. Tip time is 6:30 inside Gallagher-Iba Arena, where the Tigers trot out their highest ranking since 2001-02.
Meanwhile, Anderson and Arkansas are hardly setting the SEC on fire. The Miami mess hasn't yet attached itself to Haith. And there's a warming effect in Columbia, where Haith's first Mizzou team is winning over the locals, not to mention national analysts who are now propping him up for National Coach of the Year honors.
“I'm surprised,” Haith said in a USA Today story this week. “There is usually an adjustment period. For us to play at the level we have so early is a big surprise.”
Clearly, Haith has won over his team, too.
And let's be clear, Anderson left him with something to work with, which is rarely the case when a coach ventures into a new job.
The Tigers start four seniors, all veterans of the program who have enjoyed varying levels of success, led by Kim English and Marcus Denmon, the latter a legitimate All-American candidate averaging 17.7 points a game.
Ricardo Ratliffe, another senior, leads the nation in field goal percentage while averaging 14.6 points and leading the Tigers in rebounding at 6.4 per game.
And then there's the Pressey brothers, Matt and Phil, sons of former Tulsa and NBA standout Paul Pressey. Matt's a senior, while Phil is the playmaking point guard that makes everything go, on pace to break Anthony Peeler's school record for assists in a season.
All were Anderson recruits.
Still, Haith's personal touch is apparent, and the reason why those who have watched Missouri closely believe this Tigers team will finally tap the promise and potential never quite reached in recent seasons.
Haith managed the loss of injured forward Laurence Bowers – a preseason All-Big 12 pick – and the defections of two freshman guards, giving Mizzou a look as the class of the conference. The Tigers are also playing with more discipline and focus.
“When Bowers got hurt, I heard it from everybody, ‘Oh…,'” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford. “He's made some really good adjustments. He's put his stamp on his team. No question this team had learned to play hard under Mike Anderson, developed some great skill work. They did some really good things under Mike Anderson and were preparing for this year.
“But (Haith's) come in and definitely had to maneuver. And he's done some very good maneuvering. They are a different team. And he's done a terrific job.”
The 18-1 record marks Mizzou's best start since 1981-82. The Tigers have beaten four teams that were either ranked, or receiving poll votes when they played, highlighted by Saturday's 89-88 win at then-No. 3 Baylor.
“I watched some of the Baylor game,” said OSU guard Keiton Page. “They played tremendous against Baylor, and everybody in the country knows how hard it is to beat Baylor, much less at Baylor.
“They are playing great, great basketball right now and hitting a lot of shots and playing real fast up-tempo. We are just thankful we get the opportunity to play them here while they are No. 2 in the country. Everybody dreams of playing in games like that.”