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Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Take Two: Most successful new neighbor

By Dana O'Neil and Myron Medcalf

Of the 20 programs that officially became members of a new conference this week, which one has the best chance for success in Year 1? Two of our writers make their picks:

Dana O'Neil: Missouri

The good news for Frank Haith: He’s not Gary Pinkel. If he were the Missouri football coach, he’d have arguably the toughest conference jump in the country, leaving the ultracompetitive Big 12 for the NFL's third conference, the SEC.

As it stands, the Mizzou hoops coach doesn’t have a cakewalk, but at least for the Tigers' transitional season, Haith is well armed for quick success in a league that is in a state of flux.

Why? Let’s call it a combination of good planning, good fortune, good misfortune and good timing.

No doubt Mizzou has big holes to fill from its storybook regular season (and horror-story finish), losing Kim English, Marcus Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe from its roster. But Haith already had the stables filled with ready replacements. That’s the good planning.

He rolled the dice with a handful of transfers in his first season, Ellis Islanding in Keion Bell (from Pepperdine), Jabari Brown (from Oregon) and Earnest Ross (from Auburn). All of them practiced with the Tigers last year, so they not only know Haith’s style, they know the tendencies of their talented backcourt of Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey.

That’s a huge boost of experience to a team that will be feeling its way through an entire league’s worth of unfamiliar opponents.

Then came the good fortune. Alex Oriakhi, a casualty of Connecticut’s APR failures, left Storrs for Columbia, and because the Huskies cannot compete in the postseason, he’s eligible to play immediately.

Then there’s the ironic twist of good misfortune. When Laurence Bowers injured his knee before the start of last season, most everyone figured the Tigers were done. Instead they regrouped, and although they could have used Bowers, they managed just fine without him, rolling into the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed. The good news from the bad news comes this year, with Bowers returning and partnering with Oriakhi to give a once height-challenged Mizzou roster instantaneous ups.

Finally, timing is everything and the Tigers are coming into the SEC when the league is turning over. The NBA draft doubled as a conference highlight show, with SEC players going 1-2-3 (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bradley Beal) and accounting for eight of the first-round spots.

Kentucky will begin anew after losing everyone but its student managers to the NBA; Vanderbilt said goodbye to its three-headed machine of John Jenkins, Jeff Taylor and Festus Ezeli; Florida is sans Beal and senior Erving Walker; Alabama’s JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell are gone; and Mississippi State has a new coach (Rick Ray) and has lost its top four scorers.

In other words, Missouri doesn’t even need to sharpen its elbows to get into the SEC mix.

At least not on the basketball court.

Myron Medcalf: Virginia Commonwealth

Shaka Smart figured his squad would face hurdles a year after a fleet of seniors led the program to the Final Four. The Rams were younger. Brad Burgess was the only senior on the team.

But youth didn’t disrupt the 2011-12 campaign. The Rams battled for the CAA crown and squeezed into March Madness by winning the conference tourney. Then they knocked off fifth-seeded Wichita State before falling one bucket short of upsetting Indiana and cracking the Sweet 16 once again.

The Rams, a 12-seed in the Big Dance, were a success in March using the same attribute that has carried Smart’s squads to the biggest stages of the sport the past two years: strict defense (the Rams were No. 22 in Ken Pomeroy’s final adjusted defensive efficiency ratings).

That’s the same trait that will ease the Rams’ transition to the Atlantic 10 next season. The squad that forced 22 Indiana turnovers in that thriller in March returns the bulk of its team. Five players who averaged at least 1.2 steals are back. Although the Rams lose Burgess, an all-around contributor and leader for the team, they do gain his brother. Jordan Burgess is a four-star prospect who’s ranked No. 95 on ESPN 100 for the 2012 class.

He picked the perfect time for his arrival. The elder Burgess was the only senior on last season's squad. Everyone else is back.

Last season, multiple A-10 squads fought for the league’s title. It wasn’t always pretty, but the league possessed parity throughout the season.

Via Burgess 2.0 and their suffocating defensive pressure, the Rams should participate in that battle during their inaugural season in the league. Bigger programs have switched conferences in recent months, but VCU is equally equipped to outperform them all next season.

The Rams rarely do anything quietly.

Their initial season in the Atlantic 10 won't be any different.