First-year South Carolina men's basketball coach Frank Martin had a word of advice for his new SEC colleagues when they gathered in May to discuss scheduling with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the league: Change is not easy, and playing an 18-game league schedule is brutal.
"When we went from 16 to 18 in the Big 12 (last season), I said it's going to be very similar to just walking in the house and banging my head against the wall two or three times," said Martin, the former Kansas State coach. "League games are just so hard because of the atmosphere, the rivalries. And most importantly, the coaches know each other. That's what's beginning for us."
After much debate over how best to integrate the Aggies and Tigers, SEC coaches agreed to an 18-game schedule with one permanent rival (Florida's will be Kentucky), four rotating opponents on a home-and-home basis and eight teams played once each year (four at home). Each school will play its permanent rival home and away annually. The new format will come at the expense of some long-standing rivals.
"I think it was a case of you're trying to do what was best for the league, and that's the most important thing," said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team will annually play home-and-home against Vanderbilt. "We would love to play Kentucky every year twice. Fans truly love it. But I think we looked at the big picture and what's best for this league."
Adding two teams that aren't located in the deep South will bring unique issues, most notably travel.
"I think in general our whole conference we've got a little bit longer distance to go to get where we're playing," said Missouri coach Frank Haith, a former coach at Miami familiar with playing SEC teams. "That transition, we'll just see how it goes because that's going to be different. We had five bus trips last year. Obviously we're not going to have any this year. … That's going to be the biggest adjustment for us."
Whatever concerns they have about the new schedule, coaches seem to unanimously agree the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M is expected to raise the profile of the SEC, giving the league stronger competition and more national prominence.
Missouri began last season ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press poll. It moved into the top five in January and stayed there for the rest of the regular season. Texas A&M was ranked among the Top 25 before midseason struggles.
"Certainly, they had a great year," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team would have played Missouri in the second round of last season's NCAA Tournament had the second-seeded Tigers not been upset.
"I think they are a great addition to our league. They make our league better. Clearly last year they were definitely one of the top five teams from start to finish. … So I think the addition of them and Texas A&M is only going to help the SEC."
The 18-game schedule also complicates nonconference scheduling. Several years ago, SEC commissioner Mike Slive directed teams to beef them to improve their NCAA Tournament opportunities. Now coaches must decide whether to continue to seek out top nonconference teams, knowing what's coming in the conference schedule.
"All of a sudden, the strength of our league schedule goes up," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. You're talking two (more) NCAA Tournament teams in men's basketball. You want to put your team in jeopardy? Just over-schedule, have an injury, have something happen. At the end of the day, it changes how we think a little bit here."
But, Calipari added, the pluses overshadow the minuses.
"You think about our league and the teams that we had, and now add Texas A&M and Missouri; think about what happens now," he said. "Now we start moving up a notch to where everybody is. I think seven teams in our league, half of our league, is going to be in the NCAA Tournament. And I believe that's the way it will be from here on in."
Alabama coach Anthony Grant echoed that sentiment.
"I think the potential for this to be the best our league has been in quite a while is there," Grant said. "Certainly, I think if you poll the coaches across the league, you would hear consistently this could be a banner year for our league in terms of teams we get into the postseason."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.