COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Southeastern Conference has made a concerted effort to improve its standings in the sphere of men's basketball, something commissioner Greg Sankey made a priority when he was tabbed to lead the conference in 2015.
Since Sankey took over, numerous SEC programs have upgraded their facilities in some way, most notably with Mississippi's construction of The Pavilion, and eight of the conference's 14 teams have hired new coaches.
Four of the five teams at the top of the conference standings — Tennessee, Florida, Missouri and Alabama — brought in new coaches after Sankey's promotion, and Auburn hired Bruce Pearl a year before Sankey stepped in.
This influx of new talent in coaching has shifted the balance of power in SEC basketball. John Calipari at Kentucky, Mike Anderson at Arkansas, Mark Fox at Georgia, Andy Kennedy at Mississippi, Frank Martin at South Carolina and Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M have all seen the window of acceptable performance on the court shift dramatically in the last few years.
It's already claimed one victim. Mississippi announced Monday that Kennedy, whose Rebels have the third-most wins of any basketball program since he began coaching in 2007, would step down after this season. He won at least 19 games in 10 of his 11 completed seasons, and his team is 11-14, 4-8 in the SEC this year.
Kennedy's previous worst conference record was 7-9, which happened in 2008 and 2009, but he brought sustained success to a program that, before his time, had just nine 19-plus win campaigns in 106 seasons.
Rumors have been circling Fox, a good coach who consistently produces better-than-average teams that very rarely make headlines for the wrong reasons, may soon be looking for a new job as well. Wildcat fans are losing their affinity for Calipari now that Kentucky is 6-6 in conference and out of the Top 25. The recent successes of Anderson and Martin in postseason play ensures them some measure of job security, but Martin's squad this season especially has been a letdown after a magical Final Four run a year ago.
Billy Kennedy could be added to the list, for reasons almost entirely out of his control. The work Kennedy has done this season in College Station is impressive: the Aggies broke back into the poll this week at No. 21, and are 17-8, 6-6 SEC after a win Saturday against the Wildcats. But it's been a rough few days for the program, which has lost three players and has only three scholarship guards eligible for today's 6 p.m. tip against Missouri (17-8, 7-5 SEC) at Mizzou Arena.
JJ Caldwell was dismissed and Jay Jay Chandler was suspended indefinitely after the players, both freshmen, were charged with marijuana possession in Brazos County, Texas, according to multiple sources. It was Caldwell's second arrest in a year: the freshman was charged with a misdemeanor DWI in May 2017.
Then, graduate transfer Duane Wilson announced Monday on Instagram he will no longer play college basketball after re-injuring a knee that had already undergone surgery saying, in part, "Never wanted to go out like this, unfortunately my college career is over. I'm devastated I can't be on the floor with my brothers and that my best year of my college career is cut short."
Caldwell and Chandler were important role players, started a combined six conference games and together averaged seven points per game in 29 minutes against conference opponents, role players earning valuable minutes but not integral to the team's success. Wilson is another story entirely. He was a 16-game starter and started four SEC games, led the team in assists and maintained a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio in SEC games.
This puts Kennedy in a similar situation to Cuonzo Martin, after C.J. Roberts and Blake Harris both elected to transfer and Terrence Phillips awaits the results of a Title IX investigation into allegations from at least four women of physical abuse and recording a sexual encounter without consent, among others.
Still, guard play for Texas A&M wasn't what gave Missouri trouble in their last meeting.
When the Aggies beat the Tigers 60-49 in College Station, it was with defense and production from its forwards and center. Three of A&M's four leading scorers in that game — Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos — were forwards or centers, and the team's inside height gave up no easy baskets and forced Missouri to score at the foul line or on 3s and contested 2s.
Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon were much more effective against Mississippi State not because of their scoring, but because they were prepared for the Bulldogs' first-half double teams and passed out of them quickly. Tilmon had nine points on nine shots and Porter was held scoreless the last time these two teams met. In order for the Tigers to have a chance, both need to rise to the challenge competing against an older, more experienced front court brings.
Today's matchup pits the SEC Player of the Week and Freshman of the Week against one another.
Kassius Robertson earned the honor for the second straight week Monday after averaging 24.5 points in Missouri's wins against Mississippi State and Mississippi.
TJ Starks of the Aggies earned freshman honors by averaging 20 points per game in wins against No. 8 Auburn and Kentucky.
Starks was the other double-digit scorer in the previous matchup for A&M with 11, while Robertson was held below the 10-point threshold for the fourth time all season and just the second time in conference play, shooting 1-of-11 from the floor for seven points in College Station.