SEC Basketball: What Happened To The Great Expectations?

Everyone thought the SEC would be better this year than it was last year.  The SEC 2010-11 was supposed to be older (with the notable exception of the Kentucky Wildcats), even more talented with the addition of several strong freshman classes, and generally better.

But something happened on the way to improvement.  Last year, the SEC was 5th out of the Big Six BCS conferences on Ken Pomeroy's conference ratings, edging out the loathsome Pac 10 for the dubious honor of not being the rock bottom league among the Big Six.  This year, the SEC has supplanted the Pac 10 at the bottom of the list at least for now, and is close to falling behind even the non-BCS Western Athletics Conference.

That is not to say that the SEC doesn't have good teams, it does.  It just has too few for any BCS conference, and just as the Big East and ACC are the Weak Sisters of the Poor in football, the SEC is beginning to demonstrate just how tough it is to be good in both basketball and football.

This is not a new phenomenon.  Gone are the halcyon days of 1999-2003, when the SEC ranked first or second among conferences in the RPI.  In fact for four straight years between 1999 and 2002, The SEC was #1 among all the leagues in RPI.   Here's how it looks graphically, courtesy of Statsheet.com:

In this case, lower is definitely better.  As you can clearly see, the ugly truth is that the SEC has declined radically since 2003, and averaging higher worse than fourth since 2004.  The SEC is currently 5th, but seems on track to take the bottom spot among the Big Six and possibly be eclipsed even by the WAC overall.

The SEC looked very good coming into this season, but here are just a few case studies in how things went wrong:

  • The University of Tennessee brought in the second best recruiting class in the SEC, but Bruce Pearl's off-season shenanigans has proven to be a distraction.  After reaching as high as #7 in the AP poll by defeating top ten Pittsburgh in a semi-home game for the Panthers, everyone marveled at how the Vols had come together in spite of Pearl's SEC suspension and yet-to-be-determined penalties from the NCAA.

    The last four games by the Volunteers have been a classic example of the wheels falling off a team.  We aren't talking about the odd lug nut or a wobbly wheel, we are talking about a team that is the equivalent of being up on concrete blocks.  Just take a look at the recent results:

    Tue Dec 14 84 Oakland L, 89-82 72   Home 7-1  
    Fri Dec 17 155 Charlotte L, 49-48 60   Away 7-2  
    Tue Dec 21 44 Southern California L, 65-64 64   Home 7-3  
    Thu Dec 23 64 Belmont W, 66-65 72   Home 8-3  

    After a surprise home lost to a solid Okland team, the Vols proceeded to score 48 whole points against the Charlotte 49ers and then lost at home to an inferior USC Trojans team, then nearly dropped another home game to the Belmont Bruins.

    None of these teams save Charlotte is comparatively loathsome, but all of them should have been victories, especially at home, to the once- #7 team in the nation.

  • The Florida Gators were widely figured to win the SEC East, yet they dropped two games to teams that I'm sure Florida fans had figured as wins -- first, a semi-home affair against the UCF Knights, then another loss four games later to an in-state team, the Jacksonville Dolphins.

  • Mississippi State was figured as a favorite in the West, and even a co-favorite with Florida for the overall SEC championship.  But Rick Stansbury's patient waiting for Renardo Sidney backfired.  Not only has MSU struggled in the absence of Sidney and Dee Bost, but when Sidney came back, he came back out of shape and promptly got himself suspended for conduct detrimental to the team.

    Then, in what will probably be a final spasm of juvenile behavior, Sidney got into a fistfight with a teammate in Hawai'i at the Diamond Head Classic, the result of which was two losses in the Aloha State to teams that would have been considered inferior.

Not every SEC team has been a failure.  The Vanderbilt Commodores have continued their consistent excellence, losing only twice so far to very good teams, and neither loss has been at home.  The Kentucky Wildcats have performed well, losing only a road game to the rival North Carolina Tar Heels and a neutral-court game to the surprising Connecticut Huskies.

But other than that, the SEC teams have either played a bunch of nobodies and lost to the odd good team on their schedule, or they have just plain lost to every good team they've played and a few bad ones too.  The upshot of all this is that the SEC looks, based on their non-conference performance, just to barely be good enough to get four or five teams into the NCAA tournament, and that's if the last few games of the non-conference season provide some impetus to marginal teams or they do particularly well in conference.

Of course, it is still early, and many things can change in the conference portion of the schedule.  The problem is that "quality" non-conference wins outside the top three teams in the SEC are as rare as hen's teeth, and with only a few games to go, SEC teams are going to have to step up if they want to get on the right side of the bubble come March.

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