COLUMBIA — The No. 21 Missouri men’s basketball team begins Southeastern Conference play Wednesday night, and it expects this year's SEC schedule to be tougher than last year's.
“From top to bottom, I think the league is better,” coach Frank Haith said.
Last year, the SEC had just three teams play in the NCAA Tournament — Florida, Missouri and Ole Miss. Seven other conferences placed more teams in the tournament.
This year, Haith and his players expect the number of tournament teams from the SEC to increase.
“Obviously Kentucky (No. 14) and Florida (No. 10) are very good. I think they’re two teams who could win the National Championship,” Haith said. “We have five teams in the top 60 in the BPI (Basketball Power Index), so our league is better, looking at those numbers, going into league play."
Haith also singled out South Carolina for the improvements he thinks it has made under second-year coach Frank Martin, highlighting the improved depth at the bottom of the league.
The BPI is an analytical ratings system designed by ESPN that is often referenced by Haith. BPI explains a team's wins and losses in a more detailed context than other ranking systems. Unlike other rating systems, it also incorporates information about injuries and missed games that should be relevant for weighting the résumés of bubble teams on Selection Sunday.
At No. 23, Missouri is the third-highest SEC team in the BPI, behind Kentucky (8) and Florida (15). Arkansas (25) and LSU (44) are also in the top 50, giving the SEC the fifth-most top-50 teams of any conference.
Haith was non-committal on saying where he thought the Tigers fit into the conference hierarchy.
“I like our team. I like where we’re at,” Haith said. “We are a couple points away from being 13-0, two free throws away from being 13-0. I think we’ve played a good schedule … we’ve got to get into league play; we’re excited about getting started.”
His players, though, were more forthcoming in expressing how they compare with their SEC peers.
“I think we’re one of the top teams in the league,” Jordan Clarkson said. “We don’t really look at anybody else being higher than us or better than us. Those (Florida and Kentucky) are the big games on our schedule, but every game is big.”
“I feel we can play with anybody in the league and anybody in the country," Jabari Brown said. "It’s just a matter of us going out and showing it.
Missouri was 11-7 in conference play last season. But the Tigers feel more confident in road games this year. Missouri was just 2-7 on the road in SEC play last season. The Tigers are 1-0 overall on the road this season after overcoming a 10-point second-half deficit to beat North Carolina State.
“We saw last year, anyone can lose to anyone at any time,” Ryan Rosburg said. “I think some of the guys we had last year kind of know the feeling of losing on the road far too well. We’re trying to use our experience to not let the things that happened on the road (last year) happen this year and learn from that.”
Asked if a specific number of conference wins will translate to an NCAA Tournament berth, Haith said he didn’t know if that “magic number” still exists.
“The old formula of protect your home court and steal some games on the road is a good formula you’ve always got to go by,” Haith said.
Brown likes the team’s chances to do that, and more.
“Those (Florida and Kentucky) are some powerhouse schools,” Brown said, “but I feel like we’re just as good as them, and I’m looking forward to playing against them and showing that we are.”