Ever since Cuonzo Martin’s legendary first few months as Mizzou’s head basketball coach, the well of basketball news has slowly run dry. And if y’all are anything like me, the thirst has been especially real as of late.
Don’t get me wrong, it feels good to be interested in basketball recruiting again. I’ve enjoyed doing deep dives into the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes and wondering which players Martin can rally together to follow up on this consensus Top 5 class. But aside from the Jontay Porter “saga,” the anticipation of possibly the best one-year turnaround in program history is the main thing keeping the hype going.
On Thursday, that slightly changed, as the SEC announced the full conference basketball schedule. Along with the recently completed non-con, Mizzou fans finally have a complete look at the schedule, and can begin planning out their winter months accordingly.
As someone lucky enough to live just a few miles from Mizzou Arena, I’ll be making my way to as many games as I can this season. And after an initial scan of the complete schedule, I’m circling 5 games that’ll be must-see events.
Nov. 10 vs. Iowa State
This is probably one of the two games on the schedule I’d imagine the most people will be aiming to attend. The story lines are many:
- Mizzou’s introduction of Michael Porter, Jr. — and Jontay as well
- The first look at the program’s best recruiting class ever
- Cuonzo Martin’s first game of a 7-year contract
- A home matchup against a good power-conference opponent — a Big 12 opponent, no less
- Maybe the first sell-out crowd Mizzou has had since 2012-13
I’m sure there are others narratives fans will be bringing into this game as well. As for me, I’m most excited to see Mizzou Arena rocking again. Up until that Friday night, all Mizzou fans will have is hope. The first chance to turn that hope into tangible support will be a can’t-miss opportunity.
Dec. 19 vs. Stephen F. Austin
I don’t know if this game would make everyone’s list, but I’m fascinated by the mid-major match up. And it has everything to do with how well fans will turn out to this game.
Mizzou’s winter break starts just four days before this tilt; graduation ceremonies end three days before. In a best-case scenario, Mizzou is carrying zero to two losses and has a great chance to enter SEC play with double-digit wins. Fans will show up for a team that’s delivering on its initial hype, especially if it’s a team showing good chemistry.
But what if Mizzou has three-plus losses going into its penultimate non-con game? Are fans able to cover for the probable lack of students then? Does a slightly underwhelming team mean fan support will stay strong ... or will it start to look like a redux of the past four years?
I don’t think that’s likely, but I suspect this game will give us a good look at how well the program is doing in winning back its fans.
Jan. 6 vs. Florida
Sort of the Iowa State lite game. This’ll be our first chance to see Martin’s Tigers in SEC play. And they’re starting off with a very good team — Florida finished the last season at No. 5 in KenPom.
Plus, the beginning of SEC play always presents a mulligan of sorts, and unless Mizzou completely bungles the first 13 games, I fully expect fans to turn out for the home opener.
On a more analytical note, this will likely be the first game of the season where I feel like we’ll all be able to get a sense of where this team ends up. It seems like most people expect Mizzou to end up somewhere around 10-3 in non-con, give or take a game. If that’s the case, starting off the SEC slate with a reigning Elite 8 team and one of the top three teams in the conference will give us a great idea of where the Tigers fall in the SEC picture.
A win means they’re in the top tier; a competitive loss means they likely have some more growing to do; a bad loss ... well let’s hope it’s not a bad loss.
Finally, as Sam pointed out Wednesday, Mizzou didn’t stack its non-conference slate with a lot of quality opponents. If the Tigers have tournament aspirations, they’ll need to take care of business in home games against good opponents.
Jan. 24 vs. Auburn
This one is all about the about hypotheticals. Let me present you with 3 scenarios:
- Mizzou enters the game as a top-3 SEC team
- Mizzou enters the game as a second-tier SEC team
- Mizzou enters the game as a mid-level team
In scenario 1, this game is likely an opportunity to pad the NCAA tournament resumé against an up-and-coming squad. Bruce Pearl’s team won’t be a threat to win the SEC but should have enough talent to steal some games.
Personally, I’m hoping Pearl can make Auburn a real threat. A better SEC means a better chance Mizzou is dancing this March.
In scenarios 2 and 3, this game is a must-win for different reasons. If Mizzou is a second-tier SEC team at this point in the season, it’ll need momentum to build toward a postseason run. Getting the aforementioned good-not-great Auburn at home is at once decent win and a highly questionable loss.
If the Tigers are a mid-level team, it’s safe to guess they will have started SEC play in a tough way. Beating a team like Auburn should provide a nice morale boost to a (hypothetically) struggling group.
Feb. 3 vs. Kentucky
Do you really need a reason to want to go watch a John Calipari team when they’re in town? Even when Mizzou was scraping the bottom of the barrel, I made sure to get out when the Wildcats came to Columbia.
But if that’s not enough, how about going to see Kevin Knox play? Maybe this stems from having a defeatist attitude these past few years, but I’m rooting for Knox this year simply because he considered Mizzou for so long. Plus, after reading all the recruiting pieces during his decision process, I got excited to watch him play. It’ll be fascinating to see how he and MPJ match up.
Adding a few more layers: no matter where Mizzou is at relative to the postseason, they should have a shot to win this game. This year is about as close as these two programs will get in terms of talent, and watching all that NBA caliber talent is a rare opportunity for Tiger fans. And — again, in a best-case scenario — if Mizzou is one of the top few teams in the league, this game becomes important for SEC Tournament seeding purposes. Those are high hopes ... but who in Mizzou Nation isn’t dreaming like that nowadays?
To be honest, while I’m making the above five games can’t-miss events, I’m planning on getting to as many games as I can possibly manage this year. We’ve suddenly become used to the idea of multiple 5-star recruits and Top 5 classes, but the likelihood of this kind of talent influx happening again — outside of some wild on-court success — is low. Even so, I’m not passing up any opportunities to be a part of what is hopefully a program-changing turnaround.