Will Mizzou win or lose in the SEC? Here’s a sport-by-sport analysis

The deal has been done, Mizzou will be a member of the SEC next year. So what does it all mean? KBIA’s Darren Hellwege spent some time (that probably should have been spent doing something else) putting a lot of things in perspective, from how far you’ll have to drive to which sports will do well in the new matchups.  

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Darren Hellwege, sports commentator

First and foremost—during the entire ordeal, clear back to summer of 2009, there has been fear in the hearts of Missouri fans that the Tigers would end up without a good conference option and needing to join a mid-level conference. This shows there was significant interest in Missouri with the big boys.

The change in conferences means some crazy road trips. Here they are, by driving distance:

Arkansas (Fayetteville, Ark.)…311 miles
Vanderbilt (Nashville, Tenn.)… 433 miles
Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.)… 459 miles
Ole Miss (Oxford, Miss.)… 477 miles
Mississippi State (Starkville, Miss.)… 576 miles
Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.)…609 miles
Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Ala)… 620 miles
Auburn (Auburn, Ala.)…733 miles
Georgia  (Athens, GA)… 734 miles
LSU (Baton Rouge, La.)…774 miles
Texas A&M (College Station, Texas)…779 miles
South Carolina (Columbia, SC)…871 miles
Florida (Gainesville, Fla.)…1,009 miles
(Source: Google Maps)

Yeah, there aren’t any shorties, no three hour jaunts to Lawrence. But Fayetteville’s not much further than Ames. Only USC and Florida are longer than the brutal 13-hour drive to Lubbock (and are far more pleasant drives, I imagine.)

So, it’ll mean longer road trips, but still not terrible, there are four of them you can drive in less than eight hours. And how often will there be something you can’t stand to watch on television in the other Columbia, anyway?

My favorite event, the women’s basketball championship, was in Nashville this last year. The men’s was in Atlanta. That’s the worst.

We can talk about setting up non-conference schedules and all the blah, blah, blah you want, there’s no getting around it…this move kills the Missouri-Kansas rivalry, one of the most tradition-laden and wonderful in all of college sports. No basketball game against the Jayhawks? No trips to Arrowhead to see a half black and gold and half red and blue stadium wanting this win more than anything else all season? This is very sad and emblematic of the whole problem with this idiotic game of conference hopscotch the NCAA is playing. Traditions that are more than a century old are tossed out in a matter of weeks. I’m still getting used to no more trips to Lincoln, but no KU games? Unthinkable. Kind of like, well, no more games between Texas and Texas A&M.

Lastly, I cannot tell you how awful I feel at the notion of never again watching a Big 12 basketball tournament. I love this week so much. Whether walking back and forth from the grand old Municipal Auditorium to spiffy Sprint Center in Kansas City, or showing off to my fellow reporters just how cool my hometown is as we just move across the street from the Chesapeake Energy Arena (I’ll never stop calling it Ford Center) to the Cox Convention Center (which the REAL old-timers like me still call The Myriad) to go from women’s to men’s games, it’s just a wonderful time, full of old friends, walking through a building and seeing fans of all 12 schools in one place at the same time, hour after hour after hour of fantastic basketball, I just can’t stand the thought that it’s over. I know the SEC has a tournament, has great basketball, but the tourneys are in different cities.

It leads me to say a line we’re going to be saying a great deal over the next few weeks, months, and probably even years…it just ain’t gonna be the same. I know change happens, and I know people who still wish the women’s tournament was in Salina. Still, this is massive change and we’re going to lose some very, very special things. We’ve been partners with Oklahoma and Kansas and Iowa State and the rest of these schools since before any of us was born, before our parents were born. Mizzou and Kansas played basketball very few years after the game was invented, for heaven’s sake. Those traditions mean nothing in comparison to stacks of cash, I guess. Maybe for some people. I’m still against it. I get why it has to happen, but I will cling with all I got to the feeling that this isn’t a good thing, that what we’re losing is something whose value we won’t recognize until it’s too far away to ever get back.

So goodbye to Hilton Magic, to the Sooner Schooner, Willie the Wildcat and yeah, even as it chokes me up…goodbye to cheese fries at Eskimo Joes, goodbye to Pistol Pete and Ride ‘em Cowboys.

These were great relationships. And they’re being throw away. Dammit. Dammit.

As for athletics, let’s break it down sport by sport.

Football

It’s a big step up in prestige. I’m not sure the SEC is that much better than the Big 12 was at its best. SEC teams compete for national championships every season, and a team from the SEC has won the BCS championship the last five years. What may be scariest about that is it’s not the same team winning five years in a row, but four different teams. Florida has two, LSU, Alabama and Auburn one each. But, the difference in any given year between them and where we saw Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska is nominal. The middle of the pack, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas—teams that make bowl games pretty consistently but aren’t in the mix for the national championship—are probably comparable if not a little behind the Big 12 equals, meaning Mizzou, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and, when they’re in an upswing, Texas A&M. There are scrubs at the bottom of both leagues and frankly, whether Iowa State could beat Vanderbilt doesn’t mean a lot.

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: Somewhat tougher competition, but not as much as some think. If Mizzou can come in and be successful against this competition, it will mean all the more respect for the program. It’s a plus. We never thought a few weeks ago we’d say this, but thank God for Texas A&M. Their move (and matchups with close-by LSU and Arkansas) mean it doesn’t kill MU recruiting in Texas. Words cannot express what a disaster losing Texas would be. There’s no way Mizzou has anywhere close to the success it’s had the last several years without players from the Lone Star State.

Men’s basketball

This is a pretty good step down, but that’s based upon where teams are right now, not necessarily long-term. You have one program, Kentucky, that is among the two or three atop the mountaintop all-time for basketball success. Florida’s been extremely strong of late, and I expect with ole what’s-his-name at the helm, Arkansas could be on the way up. There are some programs that typically are strong that have fallen off a little of late, like LSU, more teams that are weaker than the Big 12 and a few cupcake games like South Carolina, Mississippi and, one imagines, Tennessee will be down for a while after all their recruiting messes of late.

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: There’s no sport where the loss of the Kansas rivalry is more sad. But overall, there’s room for Missouri to be quite competitive in the conference.

Women’s basketball

This one’s a big hit. The Big 12 has led the nation in women’s basketball and the sport’s very popular in most of the league (Mizzou being the obvious exception, unfortunately.) The SEC means THE legendary program in the sport, and I’ll admit personally the idea of going to Knoxville to watch Mizzou play the Tennessee Lady Vols is about as exciting to me as seeing Alabama football or Kentucky men’s hoop — but that’s me. Kentucky has a solid women’s basketball program, Georgia has fallen from great to merely good in recent years. Those are the only three SEC schools in the top 35 of the last RPI published by Collegiate Basketball News last season. To compare, there were five from the Big 12 (although one of those, Texas A&M, will be moving to the SEC.)

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: Somewhat easier competition as the program tries to rise from it’s current doormat status, but a big drop in prestige and quality of opponent. The Aggies are defending national champs, and for all the friendships I’ve developed over the years with Big 12 women’s basketball people, it would be fun to still get to see Gary Blair, the Aggies outspoken and frequently hilarious coach.

Wrestling

Oh, damn. This really will be heart-rending. unbeknownst to Brian Smith when he was hired in 1998 to take over Mizzou’s wrestling program, the university hired someone close the blinds and turn off the lights, as the school intended to end varsity wrestling. Instead, Smith has built a remarkable program with national champions, numerous loyal fans, an impressive winning record. Less than 10 years after the athletic program put out a hit on the sport, Missouri was listed as the No. 1 team in the nation.

In the Big 12, they wrestle against national powerhouses like Iowa State, Oklahoma, and the single greatest dynasty in all of sports, Oklahoma State (34 national championships, more than any college or professional team in any sport.) And Mizzou competed toe-to-toe with them. Brian Smith has performed real magic with this program. It’d be a rotten shame to see it end like this.

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: Deep doubts as to the continued existence of the sport. Everything for trying to run the program as an independent is a nightmare: the scheduling, travel, recruiting. And it will be expensive. There is precedent for a team joining another conference in one sport, for instance Boise State, Cal Poly, Cal State Bakersfield and Cal State Fullerton all wrestle in the Pac-12. It goes against everything they purport to stand for, but the one true hope is that maybe the Big 10 will accept Mizzou as a wrestling-only affiliate. There are a few wrestling-only conferences, such as the Eastern Wrestling League, which includes programs like West Virginia and Pittsburgh. There are ways to keep the program going, but this move is definitely very, very bad news for Mizzou wrestlers and their fans.

Softball

This one’s interesting. Top to bottom the SEC is not in the Big 12’s class. But there are a few really great teams in the SEC. Alabama, Florida and Georgia were all in the top six of the NCAA rankings last season. But the SEC had more in the top 15, while there were six Big 12 schools in the top 15 (as is the case in many of these, the move of Texas A&M changes things a lot, the Aggies have a pretty good softball team.)

THE MISSOURI MOVE MEANS: It’s a less prestigious conference, but not terrible by any means. With two of the top Big 12 teams moving to the SEC, this is one sport in which the additions are a major upgrade.

Baseball

Very exciting for the baseball guys. The SEC is considered by many to be No. 1 when it comes to baseball. We’re talking two-time defending national champion South Carolina, one of the traditional powers in LSU (six championships, most recently 2009) and several other great programs. Of the 12 schools last year, more than half made the NCAA tourney and along with USC’s championship, they had the runners-up in Florida while Vanderbilt tied for third.

But it’s more than that. Anyone who’s ever played baseball in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, or really even Oklahoma in the early spring has to smile at the idea of playing, instead, in Tallahassee Florida.

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: After seven consecutive seasons of at least 30 wins, the Tigers have struggled the last couple, finishing with a very rare losing record in 2010. This move will definitely help with recruiting, but standards are going to be raised and this slump can’t last a lot longer or the seat under Tim Jamieson may start warming a little. Jamieson is the longest-serving coach at Mizzou and deserves the time to rebuild what has been a very strong program. This one will be very interesting to watch.

Volleyball

This one’s complicated. Especially before Nebraska bolted for the Big Ten, the Big 12 was a strong conference in volleyball (if somewhat underappreciated nationally.) The SEC has only one team (Florida) currently in the top 25 rankings, but got six teams into the NCAA tournament last season. The Big 12 got five, and that’s if you count Nebraska. On paper, the SEC’s stronger, but I think some of that is just reputation. Tennessee and LSU are typically top 25 programs. You can look at it as a bit of a downgrade (at least in my opinion) or not, but what does it mean?

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: I think it’s a heck of an opportunity. If Wayne Kreklow continues to recruit the way he has the last two seasons, this is a team that can compete right now for an SEC championship. And there aren’t a lot of MU teams that you can say that about. I think it’s a positive for Mizzou.

Soccer

Did I mention “Thank God for Texas A&M”? This is the pretty good Big 12 sending two of its best teams to an SEC that has been Florida and not much else. The Big 12’s not been a real world-beater in this sport, either. Each conference has only four in the current Top Drawer Soccer Top 40. But of those four from the Big 12, two are Missouri and Texas A&M, and they are in recent history the two best teams in the league. This move would be a pretty substantial upgrade for the SEC.

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: Like baseball, players will enjoy the idea of a better climate. If Mizzou keeps moving up as they have, this is another sport where they can contend for an SEC crown. Mizzou stood toe to toe against Florida this season and could very easily have won this game with a break or two. There’s nobody in the SEC I’d consider a lot better than MU.

Gymnastics

This may be the biggest upgrade of them all. With the loss of Nebraska, only three teams—Oklahoma, Iowa State and Mizzou—had varsity gymnastics. The SEC had more than that in the nation’s top 10 after last season, including Georgia (with 10 NCAA championships) and national champ Alabama. Four in the top ten10 seven in the top 25. Yeah, they do gymnastics in the SEC.

WHAT THE MOVE MEANS: Expect an increased profile for the sport at Mizzou as a lot more competitions with significant meaning take place. Mizzou could struggle to compete at first, but with only two seniors and two juniors on this year’s squad, they could have a lot of experience for their top performers in a couple of years. If Rob Drass plays his cards right, it’s a great move for Mizzou gymnastics.

The other guys

Swimming: The SEC in general is a lot better, several top programs in both men’s and women’s.

Golf: Golf’s kind of the same story, with one superpower in the Big 12 (in this case Oklahoma State) but a stronger overall conference in the SEC. Now, that’s men. For the women? There are currently seven SEC teams in the top 20 in Golfstat rankings. The Big 12 has just one…Texas A&M.

Cross country: It’s a bit of a downgrade in cross country, where Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are the only teams from either in the top 15 (Arkansas is 16.)

Track: Call it a jump ball as the Big 12 is No. 1 and SEC No. 2 in conference rankings but they’re very close among the men (but in last year’s rankings prior to the NCAA, guess who was No. 1 in the nation? Texas A&M) In women’s track, it’s a bit larger downgrade, but again the Aggies are among the top teams in the nation.

Tennis: It’s a slight upgrade in women’s tennis.

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