SEC Basketball: A Forgettable Year

As the excitement over new Head Men's Basketball Coach John Calipari begins to subside (or at least reach something less than a fever pitch) and with the advent of the national championship game tonight between Michigan State and North Carolina (Go, Spartans!), I got to wondering if there was an easy explanation for why the SEC seemed at such an almost historical low this year when it comes to basketball.

It goes without saying that the SEC is a football-first conference.  Of the twelve schools that comprise the conference, there are really only three schools that can remotely be considered as basketball-first schools:  Kentucky, Arkansas and Vanderbilt.  Even though Florida has managed two national championships in recent years, there is no way they belong in this category, and they and Tennessee are the only other SEC schools at which basketball is well-supported.

Given this fact, one might think that the SEC should be average at best among BCS conferences in basketball every year, but we know that history belies this conclusion.  However, this year produced some astoundingly bad basketball by SEC standards, and ultimately resulted in only three bids to the NCAA tournament out of the  SEC, the lowest number since 1990.  But since 1980, the SEC has been fourth among BCS conferences in NCAA Tournament appearances at 137, only two behind the much more basketball-centric Atlantic Coast Conference (139).  The Big Ten and the Big East have 148 and 146 respectively.  But the SEC is tied for 2nd with the Big Ten in Final Four appearances at 16, and tied for second in championships with the Big Ten at five apiece.  The ACC leads in both those categories.

So with all that said, why was the SEC so down this year?  I can think of several reasons:

  • Coaching changes.  The last two years have seen seven new coaches at six SEC schools.  I believe that to be a high among BCS conferences.
  • The graduation of the '04's.  2004 was a great recruiting class for the SEC, and that class was primarily responsible for Florida's back-to-back championships.
  • 2005 was the lost year.  That was the last year players could go straight to the NBA from high school, and that class produced a major number of defections for the SEC.
  • A down year in 2006.  The SEC had only 6 top-50 recruits (a 4-year low) in 2006 compared with 9 for the ACC and Pac-10.
  • Youth.  The SEC had solid years in 2007 and 08, but those classes have yet to mature.

Coaching changes set programs back.  Some might point to the relative success of Pelphrey at Arkansas last year and Trent Johnson this year at LSU, but keep in mind that both those guys inherited senior-dominated squads.  After he lost all his seniors, Pelphrey's squad at Arkansas went into the tank.  Expect that to happen to some degree at LSU next year.

It takes a long time for the culture of a new coach to "take" at a school.  We have seen this many times before, and there are usually some bumps in the road before the new coach can fully integrate his system.  In the SEC, Dennis Felton simply never managed to get the moribund Georgia program off the ground, and Alabama under Mark Gottfreid recruited great but underachieved perhaps more than any team in college basketball.  Look for both those schools to become more competitive under their new management.

Coaching changes also create recruiting challenges.  Even though Coach Calipari will be expected to recruit well right away at Kentucky, the fact of the matter is that he will have to work much harder at it than he did at Memphis, at least for a while.  Memphis was a known commodity to recruits, and Calipari's system was very attractive to them.  It will take a while before the Kentucky brand becomes synonymous with the Calipari Dribble Drive Motion Offense, and during that time, Coach Cal will have to work very hard to bring in quality guys until the new UK culture takes root.

So let's take a look at the SEC schools, briefly, and their prospects for next year:

 

Alabama:  Of the three SEC schools who changed coaches this year, expect Alabama under Anthony Grant to show the most dramatic improvement. Alabama brings in a very strong recruiting class including Shawn Kemp and Tony Mitchell.  Alabama loses Brandon Hollinger and Alonzo Gee to graduation, but I think overall this team should be better next year than this, and will likely be in the field of 64. Alabama is not nearly as bereft of talent as Georgia is, Grant is a terrific recruiter and his system very attractive.

Georgia:  Georgia under Mark Fox should do well also, but I think it will take him a few years to bring Georgia back from where they are right now.  Georgia has little coming in to the program next year, and loses two good players in Terrance Woodbury and Corey Butler to graduation.  If Trey Thompkins stays for another year, Fox will build his offense around him and Georgia could be fairly competitive, but I can't see them in the NCAA's for at least two more years.

South Carolina:  Darrin Horn had a great first year as South Carolina coach, but I would not be surprised to find that he hits a bit of a sophomore slump next year with Zam Fredrick graduating.  His recruiting class for this year is mediocre, and even though he may pick up a recruit or two, USC still looks like a smallish team that may suffer a lot with the loss of Fredrick's shooting.  I would not count on them to make the tourney next year, although Horn's history so far has been one of over-achievement, so I am very reluctant to write him off.

Florida:  I expect both Florida and Kentucky to be pretty good next year.  Florida just keeps getting better with the addition of Kenny Boynton and Deshawn Painter.  Donovan's team looks like they will compete with UK for the SEC title next year, and Florida's mature group looks very strong for next year and should be a lock for the NCAA tournament, perhaps even at a high seed.

Kentucky: Kentucky, should John Calipari be able to manufacture or recruit a point guard, should be very good to excellent next year, and the battles with Florida should be epic.  Depending on what Meeks and Patterson do, and with the addition of Orton and Hood, UK should have the kind of team that can manage a top four seed in the NCAA's next year.

Tennessee:  Tennessee, on the other hand, looks to be weaker next year than at any time in the Pearl tenure.  With only Kenny Hall, a 6'8" power forward out of Georgia coming in and "Mr. Everything" Tyler Smith graduating may not be back, I expect next year's Tennessee team to be no better and perhaps considerably worse better only if Smith comes back than this year's was.  I think UT will make the tournament next year, but I don't see a high seed in their immediate future.

Arkansas:  Arkansas will be much improved next year, and the recruiting class they have coming in is just OK.  If Pelphrey wants to renew the Arkansas-Kentucky rivalry (and, oh yeah, preserve his job) he needs to recruit a bit stronger in 2010, or develop some of his less skilled players rapidly.  Arkansas has several pieces of the puzzle, but it remains to be seen if Pelphrey can manufacture some fits out of spare parts.

LSU:  Depending on Tasmin Mitchell's status, LSU looks to have a solid team next year, but they will lose a major chunk of their team when Marcus Thornton and Garrett Temple graduate.  Bo Spencer will be back, but it looks to me like LSU is going to struggle to score next year.  I figure them at 50/50 to make the NCAA tournament, and a high seed does not look likely to me.

Vanderbilt:  Vanderbilt gets a lot better next year, and I would be very surprised if they did not make the tournament at a mid-seed.  Not only do some of their young players get a year older, but John Jenkins, a remarkable scoring machine, will be coming in next year.  Jenkins is the real deal, and should thrive in Stallings' offense.  Vandy is likely to be a dangerous team if they manage to keep Andrew Ogilvy.

Mississippi State:  With the likely loss of Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State looks like it will struggle a bit more this year than last.  They do have talent and Stansbury is a solid coach, but they will be a smallish team with good shooters.  MSU could surprise, as they have done so many times before, but I'm thinking the comp next year will be a lot better and expose them a lot more.

Auburn:  Jeff Lebo at Auburn brings in a very solid recruiting class for an SEC basketball team that has almost no fan support.  Lebo has overachieved at Auburn this year, but with the loss of most of his scoring to graduation, I expect the Tigers to be significantly worse next year than they were this year.  Next year's team will be young and not particularly talented, and I don't put much hope in the chances of them making the NCAA tournament.

Ole Miss:  Ole Miss was better than expected this year, and has enough talent to be a very solid squad next year as some of their better players return from season-ending injuries.  Andy Kennedy has a small but talented recruiting class, and if Terrico White returns, this small team could be very dangerous.  I put their chances of making the NCAA tournament at about 60/40 in favor of making the field.

That's the SEC as I see it.  Last year, I predicted that 2008-09 would be a return to normalcy with Florida, Tennessee and UK all competing for the top spot in the conference, but that turned out to be wrong on many levels.  I'm making the same prediction next year with an emphasis on Florida and Kentucky.  Of course, a lot can change between now and then with NBA defections, transfers, and late recruiting signees.  But no matter what, I expect the SEC to be much stronger overall next year and return to five or six NCAA tournament bids.

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