Remember when Mizzou was brought to the SEC in part to raise the conference’s basketball profile? Those were the days, huh?
Of course, you all don’t need to be reminded of the Tigers’ hoops trajectory over the past decade — or the way the conference’s trajectory has moved at an inverse. While the SEC has slowly become one of the country’s most competitive basketball conferences, the Tigers have languished in mediocrity at best... and incompetence at worst.
Yet there’s always room to make a leap back to where we believe Missouri can exist. They will never be Kentucky (no one will), and they’ll have a hard time matching the history and resources of programs like Florida or even Arkansas when that program is humming. But look at Tennessee under Rick Barnes or Auburn under Bruce Pearl. All it takes is the right circumstances, the right coach and boom. You’re one of the conference’s elite programs.
Mizzou may be a ways off from that dream, but in 2022 they once again find themselves in the middle of the pack and fighting their way upward. Dennis Gates has assembled a roster with a firm foundation and some high-end talent that could vault the Tigers to the upper-middle class of the Southeastern Conference; that is, if things break correctly. As we stand on the precipice of the 2022-2023 season, we once again gathered our staff to discuss where the Tigers stand in the SEC and how their weaker non-conference schedule could play out ahead of time.
Let’s start with the fun numbers. Mizzou opened at 41st in the first KenPom rankings of the season, good for 8th in the SEC. Do you think the Tigers are ranked too high, too low or just right?
Parker Gillam, Beat Writer: I’ll say slightly too high just given the amount of uncertainty with this roster. Yes, everybody could pan out and perform exactly as they did at their previous stops, but that rarely happens. So, I’m expecting this team to be slightly worse live than they are on paper, at least at first. Still, I think an 8th place finish in the SEC is certainly attainable, and they definitely could finish higher, too. Of course, I could also see them lower.
Brandon Haynes, Beat Writer: I think the Tigers are ranked just right. If you look at the teams around them, specifically LSU, the similarities are evident. The Baton Rouge Tigers enter with a new head coach as well and will feature a much-different lineup, as do the hometown Tigers. Mizzou welcomes in Isiaih Mosley, Nick Honor and several Cleveland State transfers to a lineup that already includes Kobe Brown. I believe that when the team hits the court this season, they will end up playing like a team in the No. 7-9 region of the SEC standings.
Jackson Meyer, Contributing Writer: Slightly high. Yes, I think this roster is talented and yes, I think it is ultimately better than years past. With that being said, the amount of uncertainty is astronomical. This team is mostly made up of transfers, most of which are coming over from mid-major schools. Nick Honor is the only transfer who comes from a Power 6, so this team is basing its success upon players who aren’t accustomed to this level of play. Missouri could very well finish near the bottom, just as it could very well finish in the top half. It’s the unknown which makes it nearly impossible to say.
Looking at the SEC schedule, where do you see an opportunity or two for Missouri to pick up some upsets and boost themselves in the conference standings?
Parker Gillam: There’s a big week in mid-January where Mizzou gets both Arkansas and Alabama at home. While they’ll be out-matched talent-wise, the Hogs and Tide are generally streaky teams that are susceptible to some off nights. I think the Tigers will get at least one of those wins, and although it sounds pessimistic to say, it’ll probably be their first Quad One win of the season.
Brandon Haynes: Like Parker, I am circling the Arkansas and Alabama games in mid-January. Both programs are strong teams with the ability to make a run in the SEC or NCAA Tournament. The Tigers will be coming back to Mizzou Arena around the same time as the student body when the Hogs come to town, so expect energy from the home crowd. Mizzou will be looking for that revenge against Arkansas after last season’s losses as well, while the Tigers have fared well against the Crimson Tide at home. I’d also keep an eye on Mizzou to sneak a victory in during its early February run against Tennessee and Auburn.
Jackson Meyer: In its first conference game of the season, Missouri gets the opportunity to host Kentucky right after Braggin’ Rights. My answer is dependent upon how that rivalry game goes. After Missouri faces Illinois in St. Louis on the 22nd, it gets nearly a full week to prep for the Wildcats. I think if Missouri beats Illinois, it can ride the momentum to beat Kentucky at home. To make this scenario even crazier, the Tigers can then travel to Fayetteville a whole week later and knock off the Razorbacks.
Flipping that last question around... what do you see as potential trap games for Missouri in SEC play?
Parker Gillam: I do not like the look of that Vanderbilt game right after the Illinois-Kentucky-Arkansas gauntlet in late December/early January. The Tigers are going to be weary and banged up following three high-caliber games, and in will come an improved Vanderbilt team for an 11am tip-off. All of this just screams disaster in a game that Mizzou really needs to win.
Brandon Haynes: I’m going with an Ole Miss game following the back-to-back home games against Alabama and Arkansas. That game just feels like one where the Tigers will be reeling from two hard-fought games and they’ll have only three days to prepare for the Rebels, who are a talented program as well. A possible upset for the Mississippi State Bulldogs in late February, following a three-game stretch against Tennessee, Auburn and Texas A&M is possible, too.
Jackson Meyer: Following back-to-back home games against the Tide and the Razorbacks, the Tigers will head to Oxford, Mississippi to take on the Rebels. If the Tigers can notch two key victories in a row against quality opponents at home, it’s likely they would be seeing themselves into a trap game vs the Rebels. While I think both programs are not too far apart, if the Tigers ride a wave of momentum going into Oxford, they could fall back to reality by the end of the night.
Dominating non-conference play isn’t always a sign of season-long success, but it helps. What do you think Missouri’s record should be come conference play?
Parker Gillam: 9-3. As tempting as it is to call it at 10-2 and say they’ll only lose to kansas and Illinois, I just cannot see that happening. After last season’s non-conference blunders, I just feel that this team will drop one they shouldn’t in non-conference play. There’s no shame in losing at Wichita State, or even to UCF in (Miami) Florida, but honestly, I think they win those two games. I’m looking at Penn in the second game of the season as a really tough opponent early on.
Brandon Haynes: Parker makes a great point, but I’m going with 10-2. Kansas will definitely hand the Tigers one of those losses, but I will be interested in seeing Mizzou face Illinois. I believe the Tigers can give the Illini a fight in St. Louis, possibly sending them into conference play on a strong note. I do think one of UCF or Wichita State will come down to the final few possessions, but Mizzou will have the offense to go 10-2.
Jackson Meyer: Parker, you took the words out of my mouth. God, I really want to say 10-2, but it’s just unrealistic. On paper, Missouri’s toughest games are kansas and Illinois, and outside of that, every other non-conference game is winnable. Sports are unpredictable though and I have no doubt Missouri will slip up once, maybe even twice when you least expect it. Wichita State, UCF, and Iowa State are all quality opponents who will battle the Tigers from the tip, and one will most likely edge out a win.