HOOVER, Ala. – Missouri is still seeking its first SEC win in football, but it figures to find faster success in its new league in basketball.
According to a preseason media survey, Missouri already is regarded as the third-best men’s basketball team in the 14-member SEC — behind only Kentucky, which won the national championship last season, and Florida, which reached the Elite Eight. And Missouri might have the league’s best player, junior point guard Phil Pressey, voted the SEC preseason player of the year by the same media panel.
The new teams on the block, Missouri and Texas A&M, were popular topics of conversation at the SEC’s annual Basketball Media Day, held here Thursday.
“They’re going to make us a bigger and deeper and better league,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They’re good programs, both of them.”
Much of the discussion Thursday focused on Missouri, which was ranked among the nation’s top five teams for much of last season and won its final Big 12 tournament before being upset (by Norfolk State) in its opening NCAA tournament game to finish 30-5. But it didn’t escape mention that Texas A&M reached six consecutive NCAA tournaments before going 14-18 (4-14 Big 12) last season.
“I was in the Big Eight (as an assistant at Kansas State) when it became the Big 12, and growing up in Kansas, I was able to follow Missouri basketball most of my life,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “They’ve got a great basketball tradition and a terrific program. And A&M has had a great last decade.
“So with these two programs in the SEC, I think what you have now is a league that is as competitive and as strong as anybody. We’ve won three of the last seven national championships, anyway; these teams only make our league stronger.”
Frank Martin, Kansas State’s coach the past five seasons and now South Carolina’s, fully appreciates his new league’s new teams.
“You’re talking about two programs that have been NCAA tournament mainstays,” Martin said.
Of last season’s Missouri team, Martin said with a smile: “If they didn’t play K-State, they might have been No. 1 in the country.” Kansas State beat Missouri twice last season. South Carolina plays Missouri twice this season.
“Every time you play in Missouri’s building, there are 16,000 people who want to throw you out,” Martin said. “It’s an unbelievable home-court advantage.”
Missouri returns just one starter, Pressey, whom Florida coach Billy Donovan said “might be the best point guard in the country from what I have seen.” Pressey averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 assists per game last season and “has really improved since then,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
Senior guard Michael Dixon, the Tigers’ sixth man last season and now a projected starter, is regarded highly enough to have been voted preseason second-team all-SEC. Overall, the Tigers figure to be bigger and deeper this season, thanks to the return of fifth-year senior forward Laurence Bowers, who missed last season with a torn ACL, and four talented transfers, who are available after sitting out last season. The test is how the new lineup blends together.
Texas A&M — predicted to finish ninth in the SEC, one spot behind Georgia — also will break in a largely new lineup. The Aggies’ disappointing 2011-12 season included non-conference losses to two SEC teams.
“I recognized right away our athleticism wasn’t what Florida and Mississippi State had,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “We struggled playing Florida in their up-tempo (style). I think they made nine 3’s in the first half. It was eye-opening. We recognized we’ve got to get better guards and get more athletic. We did that, we think, in recruiting this past season. We need more.”
Missouri’s Haith also expressed respect for the transition to the SEC.
“This is a really good league. I think it’s an underrated basketball league,” Haith said. “We understand as coaches what kind of league we’re going into.”
– Tim Tucker
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