LITTLE ROCK — Take a brief break from anticipating football and ponder the Southeastern Conference’s basketball schedule, expanded to 18 games to accommodate Missouri and Texas A&M.
Partly because Missouri is the Razorbacks’ permanent rival in basketball and partly luck of the draw, Arkansas got the short end of the stick.
Before the interlopers from Columbia, Mo., and College Station, Texas, gauging the difficulty of Arkansas’ schedule was based on an assessment of teams in the Western Division since the Razorbacks played 10 of their 16 games against those teams. Generally, the Razorbacks and others in the division were not going to win at Kentucky, Florida, or Vanderbilt.
Beginning this year, each team has five home-and-home series and single games against the other eight teams. Although each SEC team will play its permanent opponent six times and every other team in the league four times during a three-year period, each year there will be different teams irritated by the way the schedule shakes out.
Determining which team has the most demanding schedule, start with John Calipari, Billy Donovan, and Kevin Stallings, who are expected to continue their success at Kentucky, Florida, and Vanderbilt. Whether the SEC received four or five bids, those teams have carried the SEC banner in the NCAA Tournament each of the past three years.
Even though Missouri lost five of seven players who put in meaningful minutes in 2011-2012, basketball is important in Columbia and the Tigers are likely to be an immediate factor in the SEC in pursuit of their fifth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. For the sake of argument, let’s say the three staples, plus Tennessee and the newcomer from up North are the favorites. The Vols are included because they finished strong last year and have players to complement Jarnell Stokes.
Missouri — a natural permanent rival for Arkansas geographically with payback in mind as long as Mike Anderson is in Fayetteville — is one of the home-and-home opponents. The others are Florida, Vanderbilt, A&M and Auburn. So, if the five favorites are correctly identified, the Razorbacks play three of them twice — precisely one-third of the league games.
On the other hand, four of the other teams from what is the SEC’s Western Division in football have only one home-and-home with any of the favorites. Even though there is no division play in basketball, that stacks the deck against the Razorbacks because Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, and A&M are among those competing for the SEC’s fifth or sixth bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas is the only one of the seven with a team from the East as its permanent opponent, a quirk that contributes to the fact that Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State, and A&M have a single series each against the big five this year. Alabama and MSU have in-state rivals as permanent opponents. LSU’s permanent is A&M, quite possibly a harbinger of a Thanksgiving weekend showdown between those two in football.
Auburn has two games each against Kentucky and Vanderbilt while Ole Miss double dips vs. Tennessee and Missouri.
The January schedule gives Arkansas an opportunity to get off to a good start in the SEC. The key stretch comes at the beginning of February — Tennessee and Florida in Fayetteville and at Vanderbilt in eight days.
During the SEC basketball teleconference this summer, Calipari said the addition of A&M and Missouri would improve basketball in the SEC and help the league get seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. Seven is a big leap for a league which had four representatives last year and has never had more than six.
Partaking of the Kool-Aid, Auburn coach Tony Barbee predicted as many as eight in the NCAA Tournament.
Six at the most. If Arkansas is one of them, the bid will be hard earned.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.