Conference play brings tougher competition for Missouri men's basketball team

Tuesday, January 8, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Missouri men's basketball coach Frank Haith says he has been preparing for play in the Southeastern Conference since the summer. “I’ve prepared myself just like I’ve done, pretty much like last year, my first year in the Big 12," he said.

COLUMBIA — It’s about to get tougher.

No more Alcorn State, Nicholls State, Tennessee State, or Appalachian State. No more games in the Bahamas, neutral locations, or in California.

The Southeastern Conference is here, the inaugural season for the Missouri men's basketball team, with a schedule that is sure to test the No. 10-ranked team in the nation.

“I’ve prepared myself just like I’ve done, pretty much like last year, my first year in the Big 12. We watched a lot of tape on these teams this summer to kind of get a feel for the league and how they play,” said coach Frank Haith, who will now be coaching in his third conference in as many years (ACC at Miami, Big 12 last year, SEC this year).

The Tigers finished their nonconference portion of their season at 11-2, tied with Ole Miss for the best record in the SEC. Missouri leads the nation in rebounds per game (46.7), and has been anchored by the solid play of junior guard Phil Pressey (13.8 points and 7.2 assists per game) and senior forward Laurence Bowers (16.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game).

Questions before the season on how a team made up of transfers would play together have since been answered. Transfers Alex Oriakhi (10.2 points, 8.8 rebounds), Jabari Brown (11.8 points), Earnest Ross (9.8 points, 5.6 rebounds), and Keion Bell (8.6 points) have all contributed to the success of the highest ranked team in the SEC.

So how will Missouri fit in to its new conference?

The Tigers are one of only two teams ranked in the SEC, with Florida right behind Missouri at No. 11. But don’t let that statistic fool you. Out of the 14 teams in the conference, nine have winning records (not including Missouri), and four have at least 10 wins.

The SEC is home to one of the most storied college basketball programs, the Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky (9-4, plays Missouri on Feb. 23) won the NCAA National Championship last year and began the season ranked No. 3, but struggled early and is now unranked.

Arkansas (9-4, plays Missouri Feb. 16 and March 5) is led by former Missouri head coach Mike Anderson, and South Carolina (10-3, plays Jan. 22 and Feb. 28) is led by former Kansas State head coach Frank Martin.

With the disappointing inaugural SEC season for the Missouri football team, players and fans are excited to show the conference that the Tigers belong.

“Our record speaks for itself,” said Ross, who played for Auburn before transferring to Missouri. “For us it’s just more of, going in and imposing our will, letting people know why we’re in this conference, and that we’re good enough to keep at this level.”

“Whenever we play, we play with a chip on our shoulders,” Bowers said. “Obviously we’re in a new league, and we want to establish ourselves, but we’re going to take it one game at a time.”

That next game is Tuesday. The Tigers open up conference play against Alabama (8-5) at 6 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.

“There’s going to be excitement, because it’s the first game in the SEC. The fans are going to be riled up, and we’re going to be riled up,” Pressey said. “We’re just excited to go out there, and play these new guys. I can’t wait to see how successful we’re going to be.”

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