COLUMBIA — One thing became clear with the recent release of Missouri’s 2013 basketball schedule: Anyone upset about last season’s home basketball slate shouldn’t have those concerns this year.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
While Florida and Arkansas were the only real “must-see” teams to visit Mizzou Arena last season, I have four of Missouri’s top five games this year slated to take place in Columbia. Here’s a quick breakdown of the five best games on the Tigers' schedule, followed by some other thoughts and observations.
Five games to watch
1. Kentucky at Missouri, Feb. 1, Columbia
As if Kentucky weren’t loaded enough. Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who almost assuredly would have been first-round picks in the NBA Draft this summer, will be the leaders of a team that could be as talented as any in college basketball. Two years after leading the Wildcats to a national title, coach John Calipari did it again, somehow convincing six of the nation’s top 11 players in the Class of 2013 to commit to Kentucky.
The jewel of the class is 6-foot-9 power forward Julius Randle, a dynamic scorer who is widely considered to be a top-three pick in next year’s draft. He is joined by five more elite prospects in twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, power forward Dakari Johnson, power forward Marcus Lee and small forward James Young. That’s six — SIX — 2013 McDonald’s All-Americans, two more than these guys.
Now, it’s up to Coach Cal to get these kids to buy into their roles. With the 7-foot Cauley-Stein (a true rim protector) and the 6-foot-7 Poythress (a gifted scorer) almost certain to start, that means three players who likely would have started anywhere else in the country will need to come off the bench and embrace being a role player. There’s also that matter of building chemistry, which is rarely easy with a young team. Who knows how (or if) Calipari will make it work, but seeing these guys in Columbia on a Saturday afternoon — on national television, no less — should be a treat.
2. Arkansas at Missouri, Feb. 13, Columbia
In ordinary years, this game would be listed first, and it wouldn’t even be close. Nothing will ever top the Kansas rivalry in terms of passion and pure hatred, but the Razorbacks — led by former MU coach Mike Anderson — proved to be a competent replacement on the rivalry scale last season.
After all, who can forget Anderson outright embracing his “heel” turn during his return to Columbia last season, when he shouted something that enraged MU coach Frank Haith, who needed to be restrained. Anderson only responded with a full-out grin:
So there’s no shortage of drama here, even though Missouri and Arkansas will first meet Jan. 28 in Fayetteville. On the court, the Razorbacks — who went 19-13 last season — could be pretty decent, despite the loss of leading scorers B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell to the NBA and the transfer of 6-foot-10 forward Hunter Mickelson to Kansas.
Guards Mardracus Wade, Rashad Madden, Rickey Scott, Kikko Haydar and Michael Qualls all return after averaging at least 13 minutes per game. Forward Coty Clarke is back, and he’s the returning scoring leader at 7.6 points per game, which is an indication of the Razorbacks’ offensive struggles. However, he will be joined in the frontcourt by Houston transfer Alandise Harris (13.3 ppg in 2011-2012) and gifted 6-foot-10 forward Bobby Portis, Rivals’ No. 15 overall prospect in the Class of 2013.
3. Missouri at Florida, Feb. 4, Gainesville
The Tigers return to the place where they suffered a horrific 83-52 beating last season, and you’re never going to believe this, but the Gators — who went 29-8 and lost in the Elite Eight to Michigan — are going to be really good again.
First off, Florida returns a trio of senior starters in point guard Scottie Wilbekin, forward Will Yeguete and forward Patric Young. Yeguete is a blue-collar sort with a knack for defense, while more will be expect from the 6-foot-9 Young, a former five-star prospect whose 2012-13 average of 10.1 points per game figures to go up with the graduation of Mike Rosario, Eric Murphy and Kenny Boynton, all of whom averaged over 10 points per game last season.
The status of Wilbekin, however, remains a mystery. He is a terrific player, someone capable of controlling a game, though he was recently suspended indefinitely by coach Billy Donovan for undisclosed reasons.
That just opens the door further for super-quick five-star freshman Kasey Hill, whom Rivals rated as the No. 10 prospect in the Class of 2013. There’s also plenty of depth on the perimeter, where sophomore Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith (6.3 ppg in 2011-2012) joins athletic senior forward Casey Prather and sophomore guard Michael Frazier — who shot 46.8 percent on three-pointers last season — in the mix.
The Gators also figure to have some depth down low, where 6-foot-10 junior South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris (6.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg in 2011-2012) is eligible. Also keep an eye on five-star freshman Chris Walker, a high-flying 6-foot-9 forward who may not qualify. If he does, it will only add further depth to a team that should once again contend for the SEC title.
4. UCLA at Missouri, Dec. 7, Columbia
The Bruins beat the Tigers 97-94 in Los Angeles last December, but both teams figure to look a bit different this time around. While Missouri must replace four starters, UCLA will feature a new coach in Steve Alford, who replaces the dismissed Ben Howland. Still, the Bruins return plenty of talent — three starters, in fact — from a team that went 25-10 and made the NCAA tournament.
Six-foot-nine sophomore forward Kyle Anderson is a power forward with point guard skills, which should help because it looks like the Bruins don’t have a clear-cut starter at the position after the graduation of Larry Drew II. UCLA has some strong perimeter players, however, as sophomore guard Jordan Adams — the Bruins’ second-leading scorer at 15.3 points per game — returns, along with junior Normal Powell, a defensive ace.
In the frontcourt, senior twins Travis and David Wear teamed up to drop 38 points on Missouri last season, while 6-foot-9 forward Tony Parker, a former top recruit, figures to be better as a sophomore.
5. Tennessee at Missouri, Feb. 15, Columbia
The Volunteers, who went 20-13 last season, should be pretty good, as former Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin guides a group that returns its two best players, junior forward Jarnell Stokes (12.4 ppg) and senior guard Jordan McRae (15.7).
Stokes is a load down low, as Missouri found out in a 64-62 loss last season. Stokes had 13 points and 13 rebounds while McRae had a team-high 15 points. Junior guard Josh Richardson pestered Missouri point guard Phil Pressey for most of the game, while Memphis transfer Antonio Barton (5.6 ppg) is in line to replace steady point guard Trae Golden.
Freshman swingman Robert Hubbs, who Rivals rates as the No. 23 prospect in the Class of 2013, is a former Missouri recruiting target who should be primed to help out on the perimeter.
Other schedule observations
*One particularly tough stretch looms starting on Thursday, Jan. 16. That’s when the Tigers travel to Nashville to face Vanderbilt, then have a home game against Alabama two days later and a road test at LSU the following Tuesday. Three games in six days is no joke, but coincidentally enough, the last time the Tigers faced a similar stretch last season — against South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas — Missouri won all three games. Go figure. Missouri also played three times in three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas last November, beating Stanford and VCU but losing to Louisville.
*According to this report, Missouri has the third-most SEC games on national television with 12, behind only Florida and Kentucky, who each have 14 apiece. After MU, Tennessee, LSU and Alabama — three teams I expect to be pretty good this year — are next with 11.
*I’m intrigued by the Dec. 28 road date at North Carolina State. The Wolfpack lost four starters from a team that went 24-11, but forward T.J. Warren is a scorer and coach Mark Gottfried brought in a solid recruiting class. Given all the troubles Missouri had on the road last season (2-8), this game — the Tigers’ first true road test — could reveal whether this year’s group will have the same problems.
*I only have one word for Missouri’s games against Northwestern (Nov. 28) and Nevada (Nov. 29)….VEEEEEEEEEEE-GAAAAAAAAAAS!
*I’ll be interested to see how many Missouri fans show up to see the Tigers play Hawaii in the Sprint Center on Nov. 16. The Warriors, who went 17-15 last season, are hardly considered a draw, though a strong turnout would surely help the Tigers play more games in Kansas City in the future.
*Missouri is scheduled to face Ole Miss on Feb. 8, which either gives talented-but-troubled guard Marshall Henderson time to a.) get his stuff together or b.) get in more trouble. The sharp-shooting senior, who was named the MVP of the SEC tournament and led the conference in scoring last season, has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules, though recent reports say he’s working his way back into Ole Miss’ favor.