COLUMBIA, Mo. • As the Missouri men's basketball team prepared for what it hoped would be a program-defining run in the NCAA Tournament, its fans prepared a phrase to inspire the team's success.
"March to Zou Orleans" was the slogan plastered on everything from T-shirts to Tweets in hope that this year's team would become the school's first to reach the Final Four.
But after a surreal first-round 86-84 loss to 15th-seeded Norfolk State on Friday in Omaha, the second-seeded Tigers are done dancing. Frank Haith will be making the trip to New Orleans without his players. But he found out Monday that he is going receive some recognition while he's there.
At a breakfast ceremony the week of the Final Four, Haith will receive the Henry Iba Award for national coach of the year. The honor, presented by the United States Basketball Writers Association, was announced Monday.
"I'm humbled and honored by the recognition today," Haith said after walking into a Mizzou Arena conference room Monday afternoon.
The Henry Iba Award, given since the 1958-59 season and named after the legendary Oklahoma State coach, recognizes coaches for their team's regular-season performance.
And what a regular season Haith and his Tigers had. The man who was roasted upon hiring for his 43-69 Atlantic Coast Conference record during seven seasons at Miami hushed the naysayers as Missouri won 27 regular-season games. The number stands as the most in school history, and it includes a home-court victory over Missouri's most bitter rival, Kansas.
But there was more yet to come.
SEC-bound Missouri delivered a parting shot to the Big 12 Conference by beating Baylor to win the Big 12 tournament title. The Tigers seemed primed for the NCAA Tournament.
But if Missouri's Big 12 tournament victory is a snapshot of Missouri's success, its collapse against Norfolk State is a portrait of its vulnerability. Haith's team got an early ticket home from a team that played like it had nothing to lose. One only needed to look outside of the conference room Haith spoke in on Monday to see the empty, dark Mizzou Arena, a reminder of a 30-5 season that ended before Haith and so many others thought possible.
"It was a hard weekend," Haith said. "There's no doubt about it. When you sit back and you really look at big picture, you have to say this team had a heck of a year. You can't disregard the 34 games prior. Hats off to Norfolk State. They played a whale of a game. They banged 3s in, they made contested shots and they played incredible."
When asked to pinpoint what exactly went wrong, Haith cycled through multiple reasons.
He passed on the idea that Missouri had suffered from a Big 12 tournament hangover and pointed out Norfolk State's rebounding advantage (12 more than the Tigers). He again mentioned some breaks the underdogs seemed to get on air-ball rebounds and banked-in 3-pointers.
Ultimately, the coach failed to land on anything concrete.
"We all can sit back and say, 'this is the reason why,' after the fact. I don't know if I can point to one thing because you don't see that coming," he said.
And with that, Haith turned his attention to questions about the future, one of which centered on the NCAA's investigation into his former team, the Miami Hurricanes.
Haith said he knows of no progress or end date to the NCAA's probe. Three times this season, the NCAA has handed out suspensions to Miami players ruled ineligible for what many presume to be accepting improper benefits from Haith's former Miami coaching staff.
"Obviously, I've got a muzzle on in terms of what I can say, but I haven't been able to say anything or know anything," Haith said. "When you see kids getting ineligible, just so you know, it doesn't always mean the coach is involved. It can be a lot of different things. (The NCAA) doesn't voice whatever those things are."
The Miami investigation loomed over Haith this year, always present but not yet harming the coach. The NCAA's rigid policy of refusing to comment on investigations in progress has kept information low and speculation high.
Haith credited his Missouri players for taking the investigation and other moments of adversity in stride, especially the loss to Norfolk State — which he hopes will not be the only memorable thing about this season.
"I would hope that one game wouldn't define what this team has accomplished all season. It does hurt when it's your last game," Haith said. "These seniors and this team had a tremendous year. It exceeded everybody's expectations, I would think. I know it exceeded my expectations."