Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
18 games reshuffle schedule
“It’s new for everybody,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said in reference to the new conference schedule. “We’ll see how it unfolds.
FAYETTEVILLE This looks like the perfect time for the Arkansas men’s basketball team to end its 13-year losing streak at Mississippi State.
“We’re all the way up to a booming seven scholarship players,” said Bulldogs Coach Rick Ray, whose injury-depleted team is 5-7, including losses to Troy and Alabama A&M. “We were playing with six scholarship guys for a while, but having Jalen Steele back puts us at seven.”
The Bulldogs also have two walk-on players.
“We haven’t had a chance to get better in practice a lot because we’re playing against managers and coaches,” Ray said. “Sometimes it’s hard to hold our guys accountable as far as what we want to do on the court.”
So the Razorbacks surely are in line to win at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss., for the first time since they beat the Bulldogs 87-81 on Feb. 2, 2000, right?
Just one problem. For the first time in 22 seasons since joining the SEC, Arkansas isn’t playing at Mississippi State.
Teams still played a 16-game schedule even after the SEC abolished divisions last season, and Arkansas faced all of five of its old West rivals - Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State - in home-and-home series.
This season’s SEC schedule, which begins tonight when Alabama plays at Missouri, has expanded to 18 games with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M.
Arkansas plays twice against five teams - Auburn, Texas A&M, No. 10 Missouri, No. 11 Florida and Vanderbilt. Auburn is the only team from the old West division the Razorbacks play more than once.
“It’s new for everybody,” said Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson, whose team opens SEC play Wednesday night against Texas A&M at College Station. “We’ll see how it unfolds.
“I was fine with 16 [games], but when you add two more teams in, I guess the math didn’t add up.”
The new format means some teams will have a tougher road to winning the SEC championship depending on which opponents they’re facing twice and where the other games are played.
“There’s a part of me that thinks we should just play 26 league games, just have it out,” Georgia Coach Mark Fox said. “We’ve always had balanced scheduling, at least within your division, and now we don’t have that.
“That’s what kind of makes the double round-robin and all those games appealing.
“I know no one would ever go for that, but the schedules are very skewed now, and there’s no way around that with 14 teams and only playing 18 games.”
Florida Coach Billy Donovan said every SEC team “is going to have to sacrifice a little bit” as a result of expansion.
“I think right now the league is doing the best it canto create a competitive, fair and balanced schedule under the circumstances,” Donovan said. “But it will be very interesting how this goes considering it’s the first time playing 18 games.”
Coaches favored doing away with divisions because they believe having one conference race is more fair for SEC Tournament seedings and helps the conference get more NCAA Tournament bids.
Having 18 SEC games, coaches agree, also should boost teams’ strength of schedule.
“We kind of stubbed our toe and lost some games we probably shouldn’t have lost,” said Alabama Coach Anthony Grant, whose Crimson Tide are 8-5 with home losses to Mercer, Tulane and Dayton.
“So having more games in the conference I think gives us a chance to try to put ourselves in position to play in the postseason.”
LSU Coach Johnny Jones said it can be difficult to schedule home-and-home series with teams from other major conferences.
“Having an additional [SEC] home game is going to be great for our fan base, and at the same time going on the road and playing another difficult team is going to help us out at the end of the day,” Jones said.
“It’s difficult to get it to a balance that’s going to satisfy everybody. It’s just going to be important to play the schedule that’s in front of us.”
Arkansas junior guard Rickey Scott said he likes the idea of playing 18 SEC games.
“The way I look at it, more games mean more fun,” Scott said.
The Razorbacks went 1-5 in their last six SEC games last season to finish 6-10.
“Last year I felt like we hit a wall, but this year I think we’ve got a lot more pieces to our team, a lot more talent,” Arkansas sophomore guard BJ Young said.
“So we’re going to be ready to keep going throughout the season and stay strong as a team.”
Missouri Coach Frank Haithe went through an 18-game schedule in the Big 12 last season - when the Tigers went 14-4 - after having 16-game schedules in the Atlantic Coast Conferences for seven years with Miami.
“It’s just was such a grind on you, but it is what it is,” Haithe said of going from 16 to 18 games. “Now with these megaconferences, I think everybody eventually is going to go to 18 league games .
“It’s two more high-powered teams to play, but we’re looking forward it. You’ve just got to buckle up and go after it.”
The 18-game schedule means no open weeks for SEC teams during conference play.
“It’s going to be two hard games every week,” Fox said. “It seems much longer than playing 16 games. I think staying healthy and managing your energy level is going to be important.”
Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy has led the Rebels to victories at Arkansas in each of the previous four years, but Kennedy said he won’t miss playing at Walton Arena this season.
“We’ve had some success there for whatever reason, but that’s a challenging environment and Mike’s got a very good team,” Kennedy said.
“So I would prefer to get the Razorbacks in Oxford.”
Ole Miss also gets to play Mississippi State in Oxford, as well as Starkville, in a home and-home series every SEC team would like to have this season.
ARKANSAS MEN VS TEXAS A&M
WHEN 8 p.m. Wednesday WHERE Reed Arena, College Station, Texas RECORDS Arkansas 9-4, Texas A&M 10-3 SERIES 95-51 TELEVISION ESPNU RADIO Razorback Sports Network
Arkansas 86, Delaware State 51 LSU 79, Bethune-Cookman 63 South Carolina 80, SC State 69 Alabama 65, Oakland 45 Missouri 66, Bucknell 64
Florida79, Yale 58
TODAY’S GAME All times Central
Alabama at Missouri, 6 p.m.
Georgia at Florida, 6 p.m.
Mississippi at Tennessee, 7 p.m.
South Carolina at Mississippi State, 7 p.m.
Arkansas at Texas A&M, 8 p.m.
LSU at Auburn, 8 p.m.
Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 8 p.m.
Tennessee at Alabama, noon Auburn at South Carolina, 12:30 p.m.
Mississippi State at Georgia, 12:30 p.m.
Texas A&M at Kentucky, 3 p.m.
Florida at LSU, 3 p.m.
Vanderbilt at Arkansas, 5 p.m.
Missouri at Mississippi, 7 p.m.
Sports, Pages 15 on 01/08/2013