SEC preview: Mizzou has about as favorable a schedule as it could hope for

Jabari Brown (left), Jordan Clarkson (center), Johnathan Williams III and the rest of the Tigers enter an SEC season that offers a number of scheduling advantages.

L.G. Patterson/AP

Looking at the SEC schedule for the Missouri Tigers or, really, for any team in the conference can create some serious head scratching.

Why do the Tigers play five teams twice but eight teams only once? Why do they meet Kentucky only at home but Florida only on the road? Why doesn’t Ole Miss bad-boy gunner Marshall Henderson play in Columbia this year? His visit last year sure proved fun for Tigers fans. And why aren’t all the teams the Tigers meet twice from the East, the division where they reside in football?

Actually, the answers are simple. First, forget about East and West divisions. They don’t exist for basketball. It’s a 14-team free-for-all. Second, understand there’s a three-year rotation in play. One season is home and home, one season is home only, one season is road only. Missouri, for example, faced Florida at home and on the road last year, will travel to Florida this year and will play host to Florida next year.

It’s as fair a system as any, considering playing a home-and-home against all 13 opponents wouldn’t leave teams enough games for non-conference resume builders and, of course, the requisite non-conference cupcakes.

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More to the point, Missouri certainly has no reason to complain about its SEC schedule. Beginning with its opener at home Wednesday night against Georgia, the Tigers are set up with a more advantageous schedule than the two teams they figure to be chasing for the conference crown. That would be Florida and Kentucky, and in that order. The Gators and Wildcats meet each other twice but Missouri has to face each only once, and the Tigers get Kentucky at home, on Feb. 1.

If there’s any SEC foe you want to face twice, it’s Georgia, the only conference team with an RPI in the 200s. The Tigers get the Bulldogs twice, but the Gators and Wildcats get them for a home game and that’s it.

Of the four teams picked to finish ahead of Missouri in the preseason, the Tigers must play only one of them at home and on the road. That would be Tennessee (9-4), which has been somewhat of a disappointment.

While the inconsistent Volunteers have fallen short of preseason expectations, the Tigers have played better than most expected with a 12-1 non-conference record that includes wins over UCLA, West Virginia and at North Carolina State. If Missouri’s game with Illinois had ended five seconds earlier, the Tigers would be undefeated.

"I like where we are right now," Missouri coach Frank Haith said after last Saturday’s 69-59 victory over Long Beach State. "We are a stop away from being 13-0. I think we played a really good schedule and I think our BPI (not to be confused with RPI) is in the top 20; we played a really good schedule."

Of course, the Tigers were nearly as successful in last season’s non-conference play, going 11-2 with losses to then-No. 2 Louisville and in overtime at UCLA. Then came a conference season that was more than a little frustrating. The Tigers went 11-7 in their SEC debut with every loss on the road. Five of them either came in overtime or were by three points or less.

One number could go a long way in reversing the Tigers’ fortunes: 38.2, as in their opponents’ field-goal percentage this season. Having 6-foot-5 Jordan Clarkson at the point instead of 5-11 Phil Pressey has made it much tougher on opponents, especially on their 3-point shooting. Missouri is holding the opposition to 27.9 percent on 3s, which is 13th-best in the nation.

"They have really good size along the perimeter," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "They’re a team that can wear you out with their pace offensively, which can have positive effects when you go to their other end. Their ability with their size and length gives them advantageous matchups. They’re sound, and that gets overlooked because they’re such a good offensive team."

Added Haith: "No question (Clarkson) has had a tremendous impact on that end of the court. His length, his quickness, his ability to guard, has made us a better defensive team."

And a better team all-around, at least to this point of the season.

Three points

1. The quality of the SEC is improved over last season, but that’s not saying much. Only three teams — Florida, Missouri and Mississippi — were invited to the NCAA tournament last season, and Ole Miss probably would have been left out if it had not won the conference tournament.

As least five teams should make the 68-team field this season, with Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee having the best chances to join Florida and Missouri. (Yes, at this point, it would take a monumental flop for the Tigers not to get in based on their strong non-conference play.)

2. Defending regular-season champion Florida (11-2) enters conference play as the clear favorite to repeat. The Gators are experienced and deep. They start four seniors who all have been with the program since they were freshmen. One of them, 6-7 Casey Prather, has really stepped up his game. He is averaging a team-best 17.3 points after averaging 6.2 as a junior. The Gators’ losses came on the road against Wisconsin and Connecticut at a time they were at considerably less than full strength.

3. Kentucky will be the team to watch. The country’s No. 1 team in the preseason polls, the Wildcats have endured the growing pains you’d expect from a team with four freshman starters. If you watched them beat Louisville recently, though, you could see that the Wildcats are growing up. They have until Feb. 15 to continue to come together before they play Florida. Kentucky visits Missouri on Feb. 1.  

RPI Rankings

With nine teams ranked in the top 100, the SEC comes in No. 6 among conferences, though closer to the No. 7 Atlantic 10 than the No. 5 ACC. The Big 12 is ranked No. 1.

Team – RPI rank

Florida – 13

Kentucky – 19

Missouri – 20

LSU – 53

Tennessee – 58

Arkansas – 77

Ole Miss – 79

Vanderbilt – 96

South Carolina – 98

Alabama – 122

Auburn – 158

Texas A&M – 175

Mississippi State – 180

Georgia – 251

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.