Conference change and a Christmas present

Frank Haith is no stranger to new surroundings. The successful coach of the Missouri Tigers took over the program last season en route to a dazzling run in the Big 12, including a title in the conference tournament. Shift to 2012-13, and the Tigers look to compete at a similar level in their new home in the SEC.

Most schools have the "adjustment" period when joining a new conference at an equal or higher level. Whether it's because of new territory to recruit against or the style of play, things seem to take some time before new teams compete. In football at Missouri, for example, this has been clearly evident based on the Tigers' 0-4 start in the SEC thus far in 2012.

The basketball version of the SEC's newest member hopes to transition much more smoothly, in fact it hopes to contend right away. The media feels similarly, especially when individual players were considered before the season.

Not only was MU selected fourth in the preseason poll, but junior point guard Phil Pressey was selected as the conference's preseason player of the year despite emerging talent at defending National Champion Kentucky and the always-sturdy Florida roster as well as re-vamped Tennessee.

While the honor is nice for Pressey and the early expectations for the Tigers, its coach reminded others where these type of honors belong.

"He's (Pressey) a very talented player. He had a very good year (in 2011-12) and he took control of the team," said head coach Frank Haith. "He led us. But preseason awards are just that…preseason."

Haith knows transition, stemming from his adjustment to the Big 12 last season at Mizzou. He learned all he could about Big 12 opponents in a limited time, and will look to do the same this season.

But was the coach given the gist of the conference jump during the hiring process?

"Oh no, I couldn't say that in front of you guys," he stated with a grin on Thursday. "I was excited about the Big 12, but I didn't know a move was imminent."

The light moment was the beginning of conversation-like Q&A that Haith has become known for. While his nature has led to success on the hardwood and in recruiting, the conference shift presents considerable challenges – even to his experienced group led by Pressey.

"The athleticism in this league stands out," he said. "The defensive tempo is different. There's more pressing, more expanding of the defense."

Haith is confident his players can adjust, but that doesn't mean a little help was needed in the meantime. The Tigers got that in a transfer that the coach referred to as a holiday gift.

"We got a Christmas present with Alex Oriakhi," he said with a smile.

The big 6-foot-9, 255-pound center departed the Connecticut program from the rough and tough Big East – and it's something the Tigers can build its frontcourt around. Oriakhi is just one of several new faces and inexperienced players expected to contribute this season, and another that Haith hasn't coached to this point. But a trip over the Atlantic may have bridged some of the chemistry gap.

"We took a trip this summer to Europe," he said. "It helped out, it was fun and it let us bond. But we're not quite there yet."

An 18-game conference schedule will help the Tigers to get to that point, and it will be the team's biggest obstacle. Not the transition or new atmosphere in the SEC. That is a challenge for Haith, who has been a part of this story before.

"It is still new this year," he said of the conference move. "But I'm excited for the challenge; it's exciting for me as a coach."

Haith added that he feels the league should have a half-dozen "or more" teams in the NCAA Tournament this season. "That's a realistic goal," he said.

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