Missouri fans aren’t the only ones thrilled by the men’s basketball team’s remarkable offseason turnaround.
The Tigers’ SEC brethren also are pumped about recent developments, including the hiring of coach Cuonzo Martin and the addition of a top-notch recruiting class.
“It’s certainly exciting when you make the splash that they’ve been able to make in a short period of time since Cuonzo’s gotten the job, bringing in Michael Porter (Jr.) coupled with a number of those other kids that they’re bringing into the program,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said.
The SEC’s national reputation in basketball circles has taken a beating in recent years, prompting wholesale changes to scheduling procedures among other tweaks aimed at returning to relevance, if not, prominence.
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Buoyed by a strong performance in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the conference hopes to build on that momentum.
The SEC hasn’t finished better than fifth in kenpom.com’s conference rankings since 2011-12 and it’s been a decade since the conference cracked the top three, finishing second in 2006-07.
A resurgent Mizzou program should help immensely in the quest for national respect and exposure.
“That’s a team that’s looking to go from worst to first,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said of the Tigers. “… It’s great for Missouri and it’s great for the SEC. I think it’s going to continue to upgrade SEC basketball. We’re trying to position ourselves where we can get seven or more teams in the NCAA Tournament.”
That requires the league to have strong RPI from top to bottom, allowing conference wins to boost a tourney profile and losses to be less punitive.
“We took a big step forward last year as a league, and I think that’s going to be a springboard for big things in the future,” said Kennedy, the SEC’s longest-tenured coach entering his 12th season with the Rebels.
Missouri finished in the top half of the conference during its first two seasons after leaving the Big 12, reaching the NCAA tourney both years.
Since then, the Tigers have plummeted to 27-68 overall, including an 8-46 record in SEC play and a school-record 35-game road losing streak.
Those struggles led to Kim Anderson’s ouster and paved the way for Martin’s return to the SEC, where he coached for three seasons at Tennessee during 2011-14.
“Timing is everything, and he was able to put (together) a tremendous recruiting class,” said seventh-year Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, who coached at Mizzou during 2006-11. “Cuonzo has been through the wars of the SEC and he knows what it takes to really compete at a high level. I’m sure he’ll turn it around quick.”
There’s a universal expectation among SEC coaches that the Tigers will be in the postseason mix next season.
“(Martin’s prior SEC experience) will help him tremendously just simply because he knows the lay of the land and how things are done as it relates to style of play throughout the course of the league,” Kennedy said. “They’re always going to be very tough physically, tough mentally and give you nothing for free.”
Kennedy said the mix of rising juniors who “have been baptized by fire” melded with a top-10 recruiting class has MU poised “to take a major step forward.”
Anderson agreed that the Tigers have jumped onto “everybody’s radar,” but outside expectations pale in comparison to the hopes harbored in Columbia, where anything less than a return to March Madness will be disappointing.
“Most definitely,” Mizzou senior forward Jordan Barnett said. “It’s my last year, and I want it to end pretty well. If we didn’t get to the tournament, that would hurt. It wouldn’t just hurt me, but that would hurt everybody. Everybody expects this team to do a lot, so if we didn’t do that, it would hurt everybody a lot.”