It’s hard to believe we’re less than two months away from Missouri basketball taking the floor against Incarnate Word. Between Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith returning for their junior years, the debut of Dru Smith as a Tiger and the continued development of the promising 2018 class, it’s looking like a year where the Tigers could once again find themselves in the thick of the NCAA Tournament chase.
In order to get there, though, they’ll need to navigate an always tough SEC schedule, which was finalized and announced by the league today.
We’ll be doing a thorough breakdown of the schedule in the coming weeks, of course, but a few quick takeaways after studying the schedule a bit.
Sweet fancy Moses, what a way to open conference play...
There will be no ramp from non-conference play for the Tigers as they open up the SEC slate with a brutal four-game stretch. They’ll get two of the games at home, but the average final KenPom ranking of the four teams is 16. SIXTEEN!
Of course, there’s no reason Missouri shouldn’t be able to be competitive in these games, especially if they’re as good as some of us ‘round these parts think they will be. However, a 2-2 start to conference play is probably looking like a best-case scenario. Tennessee won’t be quite as elite with the losses of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, but Rick Barnes has transformed the Volunteers into a perennial contender in a short amount of time. Florida will be tough as nails (like always), and even the most manageable of these games comes against a program on the rise in Starkville, MS.
Missouri will certainly go through its share of testing early on.
... but maybe it’s a blessing in disguise?
The upside to having that murderous opening stretch of conference games is the fact that things ease up considerably once the Tigers enter late January.
They’ll get South Carolina and Texas A&M — two programs under new head coaches — on the road over the next five games, and get young Arkansas and Georgia teams at home. And while the five games between February 11 and 28 (at LSU, vs. Auburn, vs. Ole Miss, at Arkansas, at Vanderbilt) are no picnic, the opening slate should have hardened the Tigers enough to face the second-tier of teams in the conference.
We may be pretty confident about Missouri’s chances this year, but it’s not a given Missouri will be a Tournament team. They’ll certainly have to rack up some quality wins. Fortunately they’ll have a chance to do so in the final week of the season.
The Tigers close out the year with two of three at home, including games against a good Mississippi State team and an Alabama squad that could be underrated with Nate Oats finally at the helm. Their one road game is Ole Miss, a winnable contest against a team one year removed from the tournament.
It’s not going to be simple navigating that last week, but it represents a realistic opportunity to bank two or three quality wins headed into the SEC Tournament. Like it or not, the selection committee is almost always affected by recency bias, and Missouri could have an opportunity to leave a good impression headed into Nashville.