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“Top Four in the SEC” expectations vanished when Mizzou punted on Men’s Basketball

Missouri was expected to be a strong contending program when they entered the SEC nine years ago... things did not go as planned.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Nine basketball seasons have passed since the Missouri Tigers joined the SEC. They were on a solid run having won 30 regular season games the season prior and landing a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. The tournament was weirdly cancelled and Mizzou’s senior-laden roster graduated and Frank Haith was able to mostly reload.

Entering their inaugural season of SEC play in a position of strength, most of us thought they would be able to slide into a slightly lesser league and hold onto a position of relative power. The SEC had spent years in a cycle of disinvestment from basketball as any waking dollar was funneled into football and in a lot of cases baseball. At the top of the SEC Basketball pecking order was Kentucky, after them was the recent back-to-back National Champion Florida Gators, and then the rest was for the taking. There were good programs but the 2012 season saw only four teams make the NCAA Tournament: Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Alabama.

Even the next season, Missouri’s first in the SEC, they were one of just three teams to make the NCAA tournament. A lot seemed to be lining up for Mizzou in becoming a basketball stalwart. But then a funny thing happened. Frank Haith failed to make the NCAA tournament in year three, Mike Alden declined to engage in extension talks and Haith bounced for Tulsa. The same year, the SEC Network was beginning to deposit checks into SEC Athletic Department bank accounts, and suddenly programs began investing in more proven coaches.

Coaches who patrolled the sidelines in 2013 who are no longer employed at their school:

SEC Basketball Tournament - First Round Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
  • Tony Barbee at Auburn
  • Rick Ray at Mississippi State
  • Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M
  • Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt
  • Mark Fox at Georgia
  • Johnny Jones at LSU
  • Anthony Grant at Alabama
  • Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss
  • Cuonzo Martin at Tennessee
  • Billy Donovan at Florida
  • Frank Haith at Missouri
  • Mike Anderson at Arkansas

Only two coaches (Frank Martin, who was in year 1 of a rebuild at South Carolina, and John Calipari at Kentucky) are still employed today by the school which hired them. Only three left willingly: Cuonzo Martin left for Cal, Haith left for Tulsa, and Donovan left for the NBA. Everyone else was fired.

Barbee was replaced with Bruce Pearl. Say what you want about Pearl, but he did take Tennessee to six straight NCAA tournaments including a pair of 2 seeds. Rick Ray was replaced with Ben Howland, who owns a pair of Final Fours while coaching at UCLA. Billy Kennedy was fired in favor of Buzz Williams who went to 8 NCAA tournaments in 11 years at Marquette and Virginia Tech. Mark Fox was fired and replaced with Tom Crean, who rebuilt Indiana and set Marquette up before turning it over to Williams. And Vanderbilt ditched Kevin Stallings for Bryce Drew, who turned into Jerry Stackhouse.

Anthony Grant gave way to Avery Johnson, who left things for Nate Oats. Instead of Johnny Jones, there’s Will Wade and his notoriously loose morals. Instead of Mike Anderson, Arkansas has Eric Musselman. Ole Miss went with Kermit Davis, who built Middle Tennessee up, over Andy Kennedy. Tennessee ended up with Rick Barnes and his 20 NCAA tournaments in 21 years. Obviously, Missouri traded Frank Haith for * ahem * Cuonzo Martin, eventually. And Florida downgraded after Billy Donovan, but Mike White has been at least solid.

This is all to say, the SEC upgraded its coaching at nearly every school.

Missouri v Oklahoma Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Seven of those coaching changes occurred while Mizzou was enduring the Kim Anderson years. Half the league flipped into a better situation and Missouri basically punted.

As the SEC Network was spinning up, implored to improve their basketball investment so the Network had something to promote when College Football wasn’t around to fill the airwaves, the rest of the league dove in. And the Tigers sunk to the bottom in a hurry.

A disappointing but respectable 2013-14 season finished with a trip to the NIT for Missouri, and then came the bad. 9-23, 10-21, 8-24. While the rest of the league was super-charging their basketball budgets, Mizzou took a flier on an alumnus who’d never coached D1 basketball, which caused the budget to decelerate, and landed Missouri in last place in the league.

How quickly fortunes change

Preseason, Mizzou was ranked 3rd by the SEC Media their first year. Since then they’ve been picked 5th twice, 7th once, then 9th, 10th, 13th, and 14th twice.

Here are the preseason picks and end of the season finishes each of the last 9 years:

  • 2013 — picked 3rd, finished 5th
  • 2014 — picked 5th, finished 6th
  • 2015 — picked 7th, finished 14th
  • 2016 — picked 14th, finished 14th
  • 2017 — picked 14th finished 14th
  • 2018 — picked 5th, finished 6th
  • 2019 — picked 9th, finished 12th
  • 2020 — picked 13th, finished 11th
  • 2021 — picked 10th, finished 7th

You may notice the program picked to finish 3rd and 5th the first two years, has since gone on to average being selected 9th in the preseason polls. And the program which finished 5th and 6th in year one and two has since gone on to finish on average 9.75th, or basically 10th.

Take out the Kim Anderson years and the numbers improve a bit... preseason picked to be 7.5, and finishing 7.83.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 01 Mississippi State at Missouri Photo by Timothy Tai/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But what those years cost Missouri were essentially a top half of the SEC team, and turned them into a perennial bottom half team. Aside from the Michael Porter,Jr influx year, Mizzou hasn’t ever had preseason expectations to finish in the top half of the league.

Here’s what all this amounts to. What ability does your program have to finish in the top four positions of the SEC on a regular basis:

As you can see, 6 teams have finished 1st, another 6 have finished 2nd, 3rd or 4th. Only Missouri and Vanderbilt are not included in that group. Meanwhile 7 (or half) of the league has finished in the bottom four more than twice, with Auburn being the only program in more than Missouri’s 5 times.

My biggest takeaway is that, outside of Kentucky, there really isn’t a sure-fire top four in the league. The flexibility of the league from 2-14 is there. At the top it’s not surprising to see LSU, with Will Wade’s bags keeping the Tigers afloat. Or Florida— Billy Donovan turned the Gators into a National power and Mike White has done alright there since taking over. Auburn, Arkansas and Alabama have all come on here late, and Tennessee has done well under Rick Barnes... but there’s a very good amount of fluidity.

Nine teams have more than one top 4 finish in 8 years, and 13 of the 14 teams have played in an NCAA tournament in the last four years. But while most programs have found success, it’s been more fleeting.

The opportunity exists for someone to move themselves into the top four on a little bit of a more permanent basis. So while you might look at the aforementioned Auburn, Arkansas and Alabama as obvious candidates, Tennessee and Florida are also knocking on the door.

Is Missouri another team who can take advantage of this soft middle of the league and move up under Cuonzo Martin? And if they’re going to make a move, what will it take to get there?

Consider this the opening salvo of a series of offseason pieces Matt Harris and I will be writing about the state of the program and its path forward. Where we are now is in a bit of a hole, but the good news is Cuonzo Martin has reset the baseline, and we’re foraging ahead.