By now, the idea that a school from Texas and a school from Missouri are both members of the Southeastern Conference should no longer be surreal (assuming that it once was to some).
Both Texas A&M and the aptly named Mizzou have had six months to get acquainted with life in the SEC after bolting from the Big 12 — you know, the conference with only 10 teams — during college athletics’ prolonged and expensive game of musical chairs that continued last year.
This week, the Florida Gators basketball team will have a chance to square off with both newcomers, as UF hits the road to College Station, Texas for a 7 p.m. matchup against the Aggies on Thursday, before returning to Gainesville for a sold-out showdown against No. 17 Missouri at 2 p.m. Saturday.
“I said when we expanded, from an academic standpoint and an athletic standpoint; we have two really good universities, quality programs,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said on Monday.
“Last year, Missouri was a team that was ranked in the top five for almost the entire time. They’ve had great basketball tradition there for a long time. I think the same thing can be said about Texas A&M. We played them last year. They were a ranked a team … I think both of those programs from a basketball perspective bring great value to our league.”
Although both schools were projected to have impacts almost immediately upon their respective arrivals into the conference, it’s been Texas A&M which has made the biggest splash in SEC territory since their entry.
Way back in the fall, the Aggies’ football program was a bit of an unknown. The team sported a new coach, a new quarterback and a new philosophy.
It was Mizzou, with its recently consistent program, which was expected to best contend with the SEC’s big boys in only it’s first year on the job.
However, the teams trended in opposite directions in 2012.
Missouri would finish the year at 5-7 overall, and managed to only squeak out two conference victories.
A&M on the other hand? Well all it managed to do was beat the reining national champion on the road and finish the year as arguably college football’s hottest team. The newcomer coach was named the Co-coach of the Year, and the new quarterback became the first-ever freshman to win a Heisman trophy, designated for college football’s best player.
While the ultimate result of the football season may have come as a surprise to both programs, basketball season was expected to be a different affair altogether.
Again, A&M entered a season as a team with low expectations. Mizzou, who was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament last year, entered the season ranked and expected to compete for an SEC championship.
However, again, things have gotten off to another completely unexpected start.
After beginning their SEC basketball existence with an impressive victory over Alabama, Mizzou was blown out just four days later by a surprisingly tough Ole Miss team on the road.
Although the Tigers were without their leading scorer Laurence Bowers (16.8 ppg), the game served as a notice that the Tigers’ up-tempo style of play was not going to simply run roughshod over the league.
The bigger story however, occurred earlier in the day.
In the same fashion as their football counterparts, the Texas A&M basketball team marched onto the home turf of the defending national champions and disposed of them, as the Aggies would bury the Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena to the tune of 83-71, handing John Calipari his first conference home loss since his arrival in Lexington.
The Aggies were paced on the day by 6-foot 5 guard Elston Turner, a senior who managed to drop an impressive 40 points on the seemingly helpless Wildcats.
There’s no telling yet if either A&M’s or Missouri’s last performance was a fluke, but either way, the Gators will get a chance first hand to see what both teams are about in a matter of three days this week.
The Gators easily dispatched of the Aggies last year during the Orange Bowl Classic in Sunrise (Fla.), winning the game 84-64. The Gators used an 18-2 run to open the game to propel them last season, and they may need to get off to a similarly hot start this time around on the road.
“We played them last year, for them at was probably a difficult time because Khris Middleton, who was their best player, was coming off a knee injury,” Donovan said. “He was kind of in and out with only a game or two under his belt. Elston Turner scored 20 points against us in the game.
“There will be some things from that game that we can look at in terms of philosophy, but their personnel has changed some, just like our personnel has changed some. They are a team that is playing very good basketball and they’ve had some good quality wins. Going on the road there on Thursday will be, without question, a great challenge.”
Turner’s 40-point outburst undoubtedly caught the attention of many around the league. According to Donovan however, it’s not just the point total that impressed him.
“The thing that was impressive to me was his number of shots didn’t even equal the amount of points he scored,” Donovan said. “He scored 40 points on 19 shots. To me, that is a sign of a very efficient offensive player … from a scoring standpoint, that game for Turner was pretty efficient at the college level to score 40 points like that.”
Before last Saturday’s events, it was the Missouri game which was expected to be the Gators’ toughest of not only the week, but possibly the regular season. However, judging by the announcement of a sellout crowd for the contest, fans are still most intrigued with how the Gators will matchup against a dangerous Tigers team.
Florida will have an extremely short turnaround period — one day — between their game in Texas and their home game in Gainesville. This week’s Thursday-Saturday schedule is the only one of the Gators’ season, and the team managed to go 4-0 in their two such weeks of games last season.
However, some are still curious to see the kind of affect the quick regrouping will have on the team.
“With the television contracts, we are all dealing with Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday games,” Donovan said. “We’ve had to do this before, we had to do this last year quite a bit and the year before that. You have to go one game at a time. Right now, our full, undivided attention will be on Texas A&M. When that game ends, we have a short period of time to get our focus onto Missouri and get ready to play them. Everybody in our league has to deal with that, it’s just the way it is.”
Center Patric Young acknowledged the difficulty of getting ready for a tough game almost immediately after playing another, but the talented junior is more concerned about the impact that two big victories could have on the Gators’ season.
“If we come away with two wins, that’ll be great for us,” Young said. “Give us some momentum, show us that we can really win this league this year … if we can handle this, hopefully come late March we can handle whatever.”