Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Welcome to SEC basketball, Missouri

What a difference a season makes. Missouri’s first meeting with SEC football was like a date with a pretty girl who knows she’s pretty and won’t quit talking about herself. Now Missouri meets SEC basketball, which is quieter, less boastful, pushed to the side by the conference’s football obsession.

SEC basketball has massive Rupp Arena in Kentucky, raucous Bud Walton Arena in Arkansas and three national titles in the last seven seasons. But it also has plenty of sparse crowds, dreadful teams and schools that aren’t that committed to winning at basketball.

But while SEC basketball is far less in-your-face than its football counterpart, it offers up its share of drama and storylines to follow as the conference portion of the college basketball season begins.

Missouri (11-2 through Sunday) begins SEC play as a serious contender for the conference title. It’s probably a three-team race among the Tigers, defending national champion Kentucky (9-4 through Sunday) and Florida (10-2).

Kentucky is young but has talent and potential, like most John Calipari teams, and took Louisville to the wire on the road.

Florida would seem to be the favorite, but the Gators kicked away a game at Arizona and suffered a surprising loss against Kansas State. The Gators also have four games against the other two favorites (two vs. Kentucky and two vs. Missouri), while the Missouri and Kentucky only play each other once and thus have just three games against other favorites.

Beyond those three, meh. Nonconference play brought embarrassing scores weekly for the SEC. Vanderbilt lost to Marist, 50-33. Georgia lost to Iona, Mississippi State lost to Loyola-Illinois, and LSU was smoked by Boise State… all in the same weekend.

Tennessee isn’t terrible, but struggles mightily to score at times. Ole Miss (11-2) is getting some buzz as a team that could threaten the top three, in good measure because the Rebels only face Florida and Kentucky once each.

However, Ole Miss gets an early shot at a big dog when they host Missouri on Saturday (7 p.m., Fox Sports Network). After opening SEC play at home against Alabama on Tuesday, this is Missouri’s first SEC road game.

It’s tough to get much of a gauge on Ole Miss, as it played a fairly soft nonconference schedule. Junior guard Marshall Henderson leads Ole Miss in scoring at 18.2 points per game through Sunday. Henderson is making less than 40 percent of his shots, but nearly 86 percent of his free throws. Senior forward Murphy Holloway is averaging a double-double with 15.8 points and 10.9 rebounds per game.

On a Saturday night, with Mizzou ranked and this being the Rebels’ first home conference game, I’d expect the 9,061-seat C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum to be as rocking as it can be. But I still think Missouri has the talent to eventually put Ole Miss away.

Missouri could run the table at home, but faces road challenges at Florida, Arkansas and Kentucky. I’ll call for a 15-3 record in SEC play. Whether that’s enough for Missouri to earn its first regular season conference title since 1994, we’ll see.

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