When Missouri joined the Southeastern Conference five years ago, the narrative was football would flounder but men’s basketball should thrive.
Conventional wisdom turned on its head as former football coach Gary Pinkel led the Tigers to consecutive SEC East division titles, while basketball took an 8-46 nosedive in the conference during the last three seasons.
“You didn’t anticipate back in 2011 when it was announced and 2012 when Missouri joined that they would not be a consistent top team in men’s basketball,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “I think that they’ll be back, but it’s not just flipping a switch.”
Mizzou finds itself in reset mode after Kim Anderson was fired last Sunday, but other SEC coaches and outside observers expect the program to rebound and believe it’s an attractive job opening.
“It’s a terrific basketball job,” said second-year Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who has shared a league with the Tigers for 16 of the last 19 seasons including his time at Texas. “When I think of Missouri, I think of them as a basketball school. I think they’ve had great success in basketball there, and I have great respect for their fans. They appreciate great basketball.”
Conversations with long-time college basketball veterans — former players, former coaches and television analysts — produce a lengthy list of reasons the program ought to ascend again.
“The average Mizzou fan has every right to expect a great basketball program there,” former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. “They have great tradition — Norm Stewart, (Steve) Stipanovich and all those great players who came through and were so well-coached — and they can get that back.
“The facility is terrific. It’s in a good location with Kansas City on one side and St. Louis on the other. They’re in a really good league, but if they get the right coach and support him — give him enough time and enough resources and funding — that program will come back. There’s every reason to believe it will come back and be a factor in the SEC each and every year.”
Mizzou Arena is 13 years old and first-year athletic director Jim Sterk said Wednesday is probably needs “sprucing up,” but SEC Network analyst and former Tigers star Jon Sundvold believes it’s one of the finer on-campus facilities in the country.
There may never be a time Mizzou regularly trades elbows with Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina for the top recruiting class in the country, but St. Louis and Kansas City produce enough talent on a biennial basis to keep the program stocked.
Plus, the massive revenues the SEC is generating mean the Tigers have more resources than ever to invest in men’s basketball.
“Just like all of the jobs in the Southeastern Conference, it’s got a lot of promise and potential,” second-year Florida coach Mike White said.
Sterk, who White called a lifelong friend, is also considered an asset in the search as a basketball-friendly athletic director.
SEC basketball, which has only produced three NCAA Tournament teams in three of the last four years, has become a national punchline, but that perception slowly is starting to change.
During the last three seasons, the SEC has added Barnes, White, Ben Howland (Mississippi State), Bruce Pearl (Auburn), Avery Johnson (Alabama) and Bryce Drew (Vanderbilt) to a stable of coaches that already included Kentucky’s John Calipari, South Carolina’s Frank Martin and Arkansas’ Mike Anderson, among others.
Now, it’s Missouri’s turn.
“Any job that has that much basketball tradition and history and is in a league like the SEC deserves to get the very best coach they can and not try to round the corners,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said.
Sundvold doesn’t dismiss the possibility Sterk winds up hiring a mid-major coach but expects a veteran with demonstrated high-major success patrolling the Tigers’ sideline next season.
“My feeling is they’re at a place with the program that the next guy’s going to need to have a little pop to him,” Sundvold said, “and understand what needs to be built and the level of player that it takes to compete.”
Estimated actual attendance at Mizzou Arena has plummeted 50 percent to 5,996 this season after peaking at 11,996 during 2012-13, the Tigers’ first season in the SEC after a 30-5 campaign in former coach Frank Haith’s debut.
“I don’t think it’s a sleeping giant,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy. “I think it’s a good job. If you’re in the SEC, it’s a good job. It has the resources and the tradition basketball-wise that some of the other programs don’t have. That gives it somewhat of an advantage. It’s in a part of the country that people appreciate and love basketball. That maybe gives it a feather in its cap, so to speak.”
The Tigers’ profound struggles in recent seasons, going 27-68 in three seasons under Anderson, mean the next coach won’t face sky-high expectations the first few seasons.
“Someone is going to end up with a really nice situation,” Barnes said.
“You’re coming into a situation that Kim Anderson has cleaned up a lot of the mess — especially in terms of APR, which is the biggest thing — so you get a fresh start,” he said.