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Is Mizzou Basketball's Preseason Ranking More Telling About the Team, or SEC?

Being picked to finish ninth was more about the strength of the 2023-24 SEC than slighting the Tigers and second-year coach Dennis Gates.

It was picked ninth. Not even in the upper half of the Southeastern Conference. This for a team that went 25-10 (11-7 SEC) last season during the first year of new head coach Dennis Gates, won a game in the NCAA Tournament, and subsequently had two players land on NBA rosters. 

Ninth? Seriously? 

But don't be too down on the panel of voters, made up of SEC and national media, or critical. It's hard to plug a team or make accurate picks when you haven't seen anyone play and most of the league has had extensive turnover. 

So Tennessee was dubbed the overall preseason favorite, a distinction that head coach Rick Barnes may not want as the Volunteers will heavily targeted by the rest of the SEC similar to the way Kentucky was a year ago en route to a third-place finish. 

Yet it's easy to see why UT was the popular choice, though, due to the veteran makeup of the roster. Of the handful of league players who have been with their programs for at least four years, the Volunteers have two in guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James. Vesocovi was a first-team All-SEC preseason selection, and guard Zakai Zeigler, a junior, was a second-team pick. 

Consequently, the voters are going to opt for what they know, and the experience factor, when making their projections. The order went Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Arkansas, before Kentucky, with its latest wave of potential one-and-done prospects, and reigning champion Alabama. 

"The one thing that's happened to everybody right now is new teams. Like they got seven and eight new guys," Wildcats coach John Calipari said. "I've been through that once or twice in my career. It's exciting because it's so new to you as a head coach and to them, but it's also difficult to get 'em to come together, how quickly can you do it. We're all battling the same thing. We have a couple in our league that have teams back, and they have a big advantage, and they should."

Meanwhile, only one freshman freshman, Justin Edwards of Kentucky, was a first- or second-team All-SEC selection. The preseason player of the year was Texas A&M guard Wade Taylor IV, a junior who averaged 16.5 points a game last season. He's deserving of the honor, but it was also indicative of just how the level the league is looking this season. 

"I think it's a huge advantage when you have older guys," Barnes said. "I would tell you I hope we always have older guys. We still believe in what we try to do with our player development. Getting old, staying old, I think is really important. You look at our league this year, this is an old league. It's an athletic league. It's a skilled league now. I think it's the best basketball league in the country."

While all the major conference still have their big-name programs, it's getting a lot harder to argue against that point. Sure, Kentucky in 2012 was the SEC's last national champion, but Alabama was the top-seeded team last year and the conference had a record-tying 10 teams receive postseason bids in 2023. 

The draft is where the league growth has really stood out. 

• The first two college players selected in the 2023 NBA Draft where Alabama’s Brandon Miller (second overall) and Arkansas’ Anthony Black (sixth). 

• The conference has had six No. 1 overall selections since 2010, including Georgia’s Anthony Edwards in 2020.

• The SEC has had 60 players selected in the last six drafts, including 34 first-round picks. Both numbers top all conferences, along with the 18 lottery selections over the same time span. 

It isn't translating to Final Four appearances like it has in women's basketball, with LSU and South Carolina having won the last two titles, at least not yet. However it may just be a matter of time. 

"I remember going back to what [former SEC commissioner] Mike Slive and Greg Sankey talked about, we're the best conference in America, and whoever is second is second by a long shot," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "I'm talking about men and women's sports, all sports. Just look at the championships. In men's basketball, it just hadn't evolved that way. They made a commitment to it. Great coaches. Better facilities. We're recruiting better players. "

The commitment is the key to it, and the growth has been impressive. At the SEC level it included hiring a person at the top, who is now Garth Glissman, the SEC Associate Commissioner for Men's Basketball. His previous job was Vice President of Basketball Operations for the National Basketball Association. Experts were brought in to help with the schedule, and scheduling tournament. Moreover, the SEC Network made league games accessible, in addition to ABC and ESPN.  

It also didn't hurt that the massive TV contract for football made it easier for SEC schools to invest not just in better facilities, but in coaching. If you want to be successful in this league, having the right person at the helm may be more important than ever, especially during the era of NIL.

While the Big 12 has made strides (even with the Sooners and Longhorns departing), and the ACC and Big Ten have plenty to thump their chests about as well, the SEC has found success while also becoming fairly unpredictable. It's actually becoming easier to pick who will be at the bottom each year than at the top. 

Even harder than that is trying to figure out the teams in between because there are so many variables. You look at the names and the coaches, and it's hard not to have the ones with the history and track record closer to the top. Every school has made a major commitment to the sport. 

"[Commentator] Jimmy Dykes said 'There were two or three teams when you first got in the league,' now there's 9, 10 or 11. I said, yeah, because the schools are committed to it," Calipari said. "It makes every game a hard game. I mean, arenas are packed. Players are getting drafted. It's not just our players. Now you got other schools having draft picks. It's an exciting time in the SEC."

So Missouri, with a second-year head coach and 11 newcomers, was slated ninth, even though the Tigers are clearly one of the teams that no one else really wants to face. The thing is, there are a lot of them in this league, especially this year, making it conceivable that the Tigers could be pretty good and still finish in the middle of the pack.

Just remember, though, where was Missouri picked a year ago? Eleventh. 

"This conference is a tough conference," Gates said. "Great coaches top to bottom. It's probably at its most competitive that it's ever been. You look at where we are, I truly believe nine to ten teams deserve to be in the NCAA tournament and will have a strong case to be there, no different than last season."