Hoover, Ala. — Mike Anderson made sure he let his friend, Frank Haith, know that the pantry was well-stocked before he left to take the Arkansas job.
When the two coaches passed each other in the hallways of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., Thursday, Anderson made sure to tell Haith, in some form or another, “You’re welcome.”
“Your cupboards weren’t bare when you got there,” Anderson joked.
When Anderson accepted the Razorbacks’ job in 2011, Haith jumped on board at Missouri — inheriting a talent-laden roster built for an up-tempo style of play. In fact, the Tigers ranked top-five nationally for weeks. They ended up with a 30-4 record and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament before suffering a stunning upset to Norfolk State in the first round. But that was last season.
After returning a few key starters and gaining quality transfers Alex Oriakhi, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell, Haith looks poised to lead his team much deeper into the Big Dance this time around. And now that Missouri will compete for supremacy in the same conference as Anderson, that bevy of athletic skill has an opportunity to come full circle in a matchup many believe could blossom into a must-see SEC rivalry.
But first, Missouri will have a few adjustments to make.
“One thing that really stands out is the athleticism in this league; it’s a very athletic league,” Haith said during the SEC basketball media days event. “I also think they play a style, in terms of tempo defensively, that’s a little different than the Big 12. There’s more pressing, there’s more aggressive play and extending your defense than there was in the Big 12. That’s something we’ve got to get used to.”
The player most believe will adjust to the new style best is Phil Pressey, the Tigers’ consummate point guard who was named the conference’s preseason Player of the Year. Pressey averaged 10.3 points and 6.7 assists last season despite splitting time at the point with his brother, Matt. But with Missouri losing its top four scorers and adding so many other pieces, it will be up to Pressey to stitch everything together from Haith’s program.
According to his old coach, he’s up to the challenge.
“I have known him all of his life. Phil is the epitome of a point guard. He’s like a coach on the floor,” Anderson said. “I think that he just knows how to keep his team going — he just has a lot of strengths. I think that he is ahead of his time when it comes to playing basketball.”
New kids on the block: Texas A&M and Missouri aside, the SEC will feature three new head coaches this season.
Rick Ray (Mississippi State), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and Johnny Jones (LSU) all step into the conference’s coaching ranks for the first time, although the programs they now lead are each in need of some serious overhauls. Collectively, the three programs went 17-31 last season — thanks in no small part to the Gamecocks’ league-worst 2-14 mark – and desperately needed a breath of fresh air in order to keep up with the direction the league is going.
While looking at each of the rosters, unlike the way Anderson left Missouri, there does not appear to be much experienced talent left over from the previous regime. It’s going to take time, but perhaps not as long as some might assume.
“We’re hopeful with the base we have from the guys who are returning from last year’s team, we hope that we can do a great job in terms of developing the talent level that we have,” said Jones, who played for the Tigers back in the early 1980s. “We’ve got to continue to recruit very aggressively. And I think if we do that and have some consistency about it that we can get it turned around a lot sooner than later.”
Off balance: The SEC balance of power may tilt to the west in football, but the beasts reside in the East on the basketball court. That was readily evident at Thursday’s event, as the “Eastern powers,” led by the top dog himself, John Calipari, answered questions from all sides about the strength of the bolstered league.
The answer was simple: Although the league has moved away from divisional standings, the premier SEC West division teams (as defined by football standards) are playing for the fourth seed in the conference tournament. At best.
Kentucky, Missouri, Florida and Tennessee are the top four teams in the league, according to this week’s media poll, and judging by the returning — or incoming, in Kentucky’s case — talent, it’s hard to argue with that prediction. A national championship banner speaks for itself in Lexington, but two other top-15 teams and last season’s conference runner-up are not afterthoughts.
“There are no divisions anymore. It is sort of a one-tier standing,” Anderson said. “I always say that those predictions are kind of a report card from what took place last year…. I think all of that is probably based on potential and obviously we have got to do a lot of things in terms of putting together the pieces.”
Potential can be sweeter than results, especially in the ever-changing world of college basketball.
A lopsided field such as this season’s only further outlines the necessity the league faced in eliminating the divisional standings and conference seedings. Just a couple years ago, we could be looking at Florida as the East’s fourth seed and Arkansas as the West’s No. 2. That will not be the case in 2012-13, no matter how many of the conference’s top teams litter one side of the past divisions.
Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee can finish Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 if their performance lives up to the hype.