MU fans watching Monday night’s NCAA National Basketball championship got a glimpse of their old conference’s perennial championship frontrunners playing against their new conference’s championship frontrunners. The Tigers’ new conference rivals won, but with Kentucky losing its players to the draft, can Missouri win the SEC next year? The Zoulogy staff debated which team has the best chance of winning the SEC next year.
Kevin Acciani: Missouri can win the SEC next year. Despite losing five of the 7-man rotation the Tigers used last year, they will be a very talented team. Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon will both be returning, along with the comeback of Lawrence Bowers. Practice reports of transfers Earnest Ross, Keion Bell and Jabari Brown have been glowing. Tigerrs could bring in a strong recruiting class, especially if coach Frank Haith is able to sign All-American Devonta Pollard. And if Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi decides to play for the Tigers, they will have the size and strength they were missing last year. However, Kentucky is still the team to beat in that conference. Sure, the Wildcats are losing some serious star power in Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and however many other players leave for the NBA. But that always happens to John Calipari, and they always reload. Kentucky already has two 5-star recruits signed for next year (and a 4-star) and should be able to sign many more. Kentucky is still the top team in the conference, but Missouri shouldn’t be too far behind.
Hank Koebler: I don’t get how Missouri and Kentucky aren’t considered equal contenders for the SEC title next year. I understand Kentucky just won a championship and Missouri lost in the first round, but that’s a shallow reason to automatically assume Kentucky wins the conference next year. Kentucky’s losing practically everyone, and Calipari is the subject of NBA rumors as a potential coach for the Knicks. If Calipari leaves, half of Kentucky’s recruits will de-commit and Missouri will run away with the division. But even if Calipari stays, Missouri has to be considered equally likely to win the SEC as Kentucky. What Missouri did under Frank Haith last year was nothing short of the story of the year in college basketball. The team went from a slightly above-average team at home that couldn’t win on the road at all under Mike Anderson and turned into a dominant squad at home that won big games on the road. Missouri split with Kansas and actually won the Big 12. So if we just factor in credentials based off the previous season, Missouri doesn’t have a national championship win but still has an extremely solid résumé.
When you factor in offseason losses and additions, Missouri has a major edge. No matter how talented Kentucky’s freshman recruits are, they’re still freshman recruits. Kentucky had some sophomores this year to provide leadership and cohesion, but won’t have anyone to do so next year. Missouri has Laurence Bowers returning from his ACL surgery, and multiple transfers who have experience learning college systems and playing as a team. Kentucky’s going to have better individual players. But Missouri will have the better team as a whole due to the selfless style of play Haith preaches and the experience the players have in Haith’s system. I’m not discounting the abilities of Florida and Vanderbilt to make some noise, but in my eyes the SEC is a two-team race between Kentucky and Missouri. It will go down to the wire, but I give Missouri a very slight edge.
Harrison McLean: Now that the 2011-12 college basketball season is officially in the books, it’s time for some extremely early projections on how next year’s season will look with Missouri’s transition into the SEC. It is well documented that Missouri was a senior-laden team that came together one last time to produce one of the best seasons in Mizzou history. They lose eight players in all, five of the seven man rotation that saw regular playing time, and four starters. They do have point guards Michael Dixon, who will likely move from being the best sixth man in the country to starting guard for his senior season, and Phil Pressey who established himself as one of the premier point guards in the country as far as controlling a game and assists-to-turnover ratio as a sophomore. More importantly will be the return of injured forward Laurence Bowers for his senior season. Bowers was the team’s greatest cheerleader this past season and will immediately become the leader of the team upon his return.
Along with returning players are an intriguing batch of transfers eligible at the start of next year, headlined by Earnest Ross, the leading scorer at Auburn before transferring to Mizzou, and Keion Bell, an athletic scoring machine from Pepperdine. Ross put up 13 a game as a sophomore on one of the SEC’s lesser teams and his experience playing in the conference could ease the transition. Also coming into the fray is five-star recruit Jabari Brown, who transferred from Oregon midway through last season and will be eligible by second semester. Those three players, along with a deep and solid recruiting class including two players standing at 6’10” (Stefan Jankovic, Ryan Rosburg), will bolster Missouri’s size and depth from last year’s team.
Ben Wilson: I agree with Kevin. What conference play ultimately comes down to is whether you can hold serve at home, take care of the trap games on the road, and maybe steal one or two games from a solid team like Tennessee, Vanderbilt, or Florida (I don’t include Kentucky here because I don’t see Mizzou having a chance at Rupp Arena). The Tigers are more than capable of beating Kentucky at home, and proved this year that they could in fact win significant games on the road. While fans might think that the additions for the Tigers aren’t nearly as strong as the freshmen coming in for Kentucky, Ross, Bell, and Brown have had the majority of the season getting familiar with their teammates despite not being able to play, and also bring in the experience of playing prominent roles on teams in the past at the college level. Kentucky is the team to beat in the SEC, but it is going to take several conference games on the road for Kentucky’s freshmen to get acclimated to the environment of a road conference game.
All that being said, expect Missouri to contend for an SEC crown in their first year in the conference, but they will not be the favorites. That honor will belong to Kentucky, who despite losing potentially up to six players off their national championship-winning team to the NBA, will be expected to defend their crown. They will surely lose Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Terrence Jones early to the NBA, but they have already signed two five-star recruits and one four-star recruit and are in the running for the top two prospects in the country, Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad. Restocking talent has never been a problem with Kentucky, or any team coached by John Calipari, for that matter, and the Wildcats will have another young, talented roster to defend their crown.
There are a lot of questions facing the Tigers going into next season and there are still a lot of preparations and transitions to be made. Expect Mizzou to contend with teams like Florida, who have talent returning in Kenny Boynton and Patric Young and even more if Bradley Beal comes back to Gainesville for his sophomore season, or Tennessee, who made tremendous strides late in the season under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin. Kentucky has to be the favorite right now, but Florida or Missouri will have the best chances in the conference to knock the Wildcats from their perch.
Joe Proszek: Mizzou consistently basked as one of the top five teams in the entire country in the 2011-12 basketball season. But they will be a long shot to actually win the SEC.
The Tigers garnered success from their unusual lineup that boasted four guards in the starting five. And those guards used hyper-athleticism to win against much larger teams.
But with three of those guards and the only two big men who played significant minutes last year leaving, Mizzou seems to be rebuilding a team from the ground up.
Many will claim that with Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon coming back after career seasons and Laurence Bowers returning from an ACL tear, the Tigers return enough talent to supplement a new core of transfers to succeed and perhaps win it all.
But lets look at what the Tigers are actually getting into. Kentucky is clearly the favorite to win again. Despite their entire starting five probably headed toward the draft, the Wildcats are simply going to be loaded again with young talent again next season. They already have commitments from the No. 12 (Archie Goodwin), No. 19 (Alex Poythress) and No. 39 (Willie Cauley) recruits in the nation. They are also still in the running to land this recruiting class’ top prize, the 6’6″ guard Shabazz Muhammad. Combine that with the fact that the Wildcats just won a national title with a team composed mostly of underclassmen, and it seems hard to believe that anyone could beat Kentucky.
Final Verdict: Missouri 3, Kentucky 2