Missouri, Texas A&M eye SEC challenge


Texas A&M men's coach Billy Kennedy speaks to reporters during the Southeastern Conference NCAA college basketball media day on Thursday in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 7:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 8:58 p.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Long before Billy Kennedy was hired to coach at Texas A&M, he respected Southeastern Conference men’s basketball.

Kennedy began his head coaching career at Centenary College before stops at Southeast Louisiana and Murray State. Often, he scheduled “money” games against SEC programs in his non-conference schedule.

“I was always looking for the big check and we didn’t have a chance to be around late in the game,” Kennedy said. “Now it’s the other way around.”

Missouri and Texas A&M served as the new kids on the block during Thursday’s SEC basketball media days. Both first-year league programs should add strength to a conference that has won three national titles in the last seven years.

“I don’t know if any other basketball league can say that,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “So that shows you the talent in this league.”

Missouri is coming off a 30-5 season that ended with an upset first-round loss to Norfolk State in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Haith said the biggest adjustment from the Big 12 to the SEC will be facing more pressing, up-tempo teams.

“No one pressed in the Big 12 and I know Florida, Alabama and Arkansas, a lot of these teams press and that’s something we’ve got to get used to,” Haith said. “The athleticism in this league we’ve got to get used to as well.”

Missouri may be more equipped to adjust to the athletic ability of the league than Texas A&M. The Tigers were picked to finish third in the league in the SEC preseason media poll. Texas A&M was picked to finish ninth.

“We are going to be going to new arenas and new hotels and we’ve got a whole new team so it’s going to be a challenge for us,” Kennedy said.

Texas A&M lost both of its games to SEC teams last season, falling to Mississippi State (69-60) and Florida (84-64). Against the Gators, Texas A&M fell behind 21-4 early at the Orange Bowl Classic in Sunrise.

“I recognized right away our athleticism wasn’t the same as what Florida and Mississippi State had last season,” Kennedy said. “We struggled. We struggled playing Florida and their up-tempo. I think they made nine 3s in the first half. It was an eye-opener.

“We recognized right away we better get better guards, get more athletic. We did that, we think, in recruiting this past year, but we need more.”

Missouri returns two starters from its 30-5 team. But one, Missouri junior point guard Phil Pressey, was tabbed as preseason SEC player of the year. Pressey averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 assists last season.

“He has a great feel for the game,” Haith said. “He’s a selfless player. He’s a true point guard. He affects the game without having to score a lot of points … hopefully he lives up to those expectations.”

Missouri also should be stronger up front with the addition of UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi and senior forward Laurence Bowers, who sat out last season with a torn ACL.

“We want to play more inside-out,” Haith said.

Florida coach Billy Donovan said with the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri, the goal for the league should be to get eight out of 14 teams in the NCAA Tournament this season. Since 2008, Missouri and Texas A&M have combined to make eight NCAA Tournament appearances.

“With the expansion going on with college basketball, college football and what’s going in this conference, you are always trying to make yourself better,” Donovan said. “Both those two schools, as it relates to the academic part and the athletic part are going to be a great addition for our conference. Hopefully, it’s going to be very beneficial to them as well.”

Kennedy said he wouldn’t be surprised if seven SEC teams played this postseason.

“I just think the SEC does not get the respect it deserves in basketball,” Kennedy said. “I played these money games all over the country and the SEC has been as tough a game as any Big East team I’ve played, ACC, all those teams. The Auburns, the Alabamas, the Georgias, they’ve got good players.

“It was brought up by our commissioner, it’s such a great football league, and it’s such a great baseball league that basketball sometimes gets overlooked. But there are a lot of good teams.”

The addition of 14 teams to SEC men’s basketball created some logistical issues that were addressed before the start of the season. The conference schedule has expanded from 16 to 18 games. Also, there will be two additional play-in games on Wednesday night to start this season’s SEC men’s basketball tournament in Nashville.

“I like the 18-game schedule,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. “The more conference games you play, the more interested your fans are going to be, the more competitive the league is. We were able to schedule, I think, in a very reasonable way. The tournament, we wanted to include everybody … so instead of us having a reception Wednesday night, we’ll have two more basketball games.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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