There certainly wasn’t a lack of praise for the new kids on the block Monday morning, as Southeastern Conference basketball coaches took turns praising fellow soon-to-be SEC members, Missouri and Texas A&M, during a teleconference.
Only two players return from last year’s record-setting 30-win, Big 12 Conference championship roster, but opposing SEC coaches believe that Missouri will be a force to be reckoned with this coming season.
“They had an incredible year and they lost a lot [from the roster], but they had a lot sitting out,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said of the Tigers, who will have senior forward Laurence Bowers return after a year on the bench with a torn ACL.
Every coach asked about the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC had high praise for both programs as wholes, not just their current rosters.
“They bring two tremendous programs and tremendous home-court advantages,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, once a foe of the two programs in the Big 12 before his departure from Kansas State. “Those two buildings are a whole lot of fun to be in.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose wife is from Missouri and whose past experiences include coaching a few games in the Hearnes Center, said the fans at MU and A&M are “nuts” and “present big-time environments.”
He also commented on the threat the Tigers offer following his national championship season.
“They’re a talented, well-coached team that prepares you for what lies ahead after the SEC tourney,”he said. “They’re a top-notch athletic program.”
Former Missouri coach Mike Anderson, now entering his second year at the helm of Arkansas, also spoke highly of his former home, citing successes both on and off-the-field throughout the MU Athletic Department. It was something, he said, he was proud to be a part of.
Arkansas and Missouri are forming the new Border Showdown, as they have been decided now as permanent cross-divisional rivals, meaning an annual home-and-home series is in store for basketball.
Anderson pointed out the two programs have played in the past, but acknowledged his expectations for fans to be “a lot more into the game” than they were when the two met early in his tenure at Missouri.
Calipari and others made sure to note Missouri and Texas A&M moving to the SEC adds more than just two quality programs to the fold.
New recruiting opportunities in Kansas City, St. Louis and Texas, improved academics, as well as an increase in the strength of the conference schedule, were all mentioned as plusses.
Tigers add versatility with transition
With just guards Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon returning and with seven of the 13 Tigers on scholarship being transfers, coach Frank Haith said the new summer rules, which afford coaches limited time to interact with players, have been especially beneficial to Missouri.
For up to two hours per day and up to eight hours per week coaches can work with their players, including incoming freshmen, in varying capacities.
Haith called the transfer with the most fanfare, former Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi “the Christmas gift you weren’t expecting to get.”
Oriakhi, a 6-foot-9-inch, 265-pound center, along with the return of Bowers and the additions of fellow big-men junior Tony Criswell and redshirt sophomore Danny Feldmann, give the Tigers considerably more size than they had last season.
Haith said that size will give him much more “flexibility” with his lineups, meaning unlike last year they could go big instead of being restricted to a four-guard lineup. However, with so many talented guards at his disposal, Haith can also move Earnest Ross to the four, ala Kim English, and go with the four-guards.
Transfers bring debate
Under Haith, Missouri is earning the reputation as “Transfer U,” as seven of the 13 players on the current roster transferred to MU since Haith took over.
Much has been made of increasing transfer rates across the country.
“Too many people make too big of a deal about transferring,” Martin said. “Kids transfer schools almost yearly during their high school careers. It’s not like they're going to go to college and have an epiphany.
“Transfers (don’t) make anyone a failure. If the young man’s not happy, it’ll be hard for all to co-exist. There’s nothing more important than the success of the young people taking part, and as long as things are done the right way, they should be allowed to transfer.”
Auburn coach Tony Barbee, however, sees things a little differently.
“We’re creating a culture that allows kids to run away from their problems,” he said.
Redshirt junior guard Earnest Ross left Barbee’s team after the 2010-11 season, when he elected to transfer to Missouri after averaging 13.1 points per game at Auburn.