As I write this, Georgia and Alabama are battling in the second all-SEC National Championship game in the past seven years. No matter the outcome, the SEC will have won 9 of the past 12 college football titles. Meanwhile, the conference has won only 3 of the last 19 basketball titles, a number that would be a hell of a lot lower without Billy Donovan’s out-of-this-world mid-2000’s Florida squad. No matter how you slice it, basketball typically doesn’t just take a backseat to football in the SEC. It sits like 10 rows back. However, something different is brewing this year.
At SEC Basketball media day in October, Florida coach Mike White told the press that this is the deepest he’s seen the SEC in basketball since he started playing college ball at Ole Miss 22 years ago. Fast forward three months and it looks like he knew what he was talking about. As of today, the SEC has three teams ranked in the top 25 in Kentucky, Auburn, and Tennessee, and another five receiving votes in either the Coaches or AP Poll. Even more impressively, the conference currently has 8 teams in the RPI top-50 with 6 in the top-30 and 4 in the top-17. SEC teams also have non-conference wins over West Virginia (No. 2), Purdue (No. 5), Oklahoma (No. 9), and Gonzaga (No. 15) and Joe Lunardi, as of Thursday, had eight (8!) SEC teams making the tournament in his Bracketology. The conference isn’t top heavy, but it might be deeper than any other league in the country. It’s pretty tough to debate that the conference has also found its way to the top of the college basketball world this year.
SEC projecting 8 teams in tourney. Long ways to go though. NCAAM Bracketology – ESPN https://t.co/f0d9GGSMJs
— Jimmy Dykes (@CoachJimmyDykes) January 4, 2018
Outside of perennial powers Kentucky and Florida and the occasional upstart or two like last year’s South Carolina, the SEC typically only enjoys this kind of relevance during football season. So what happened? First, and most importantly, the coaching talent in the league has skyrocketed. Coach Cal is obviously Coach Cal, but the last several years have seen several other premier college coaches start roaming the sidelines. Tennessee went from Donnie Tyndall to Rick Barnes. Auburn went from Tony Barbee to Bruce Pearl (for however much longer that lasts). Alabama brought in former NBA Coach of the Year Avery Johnson. Outside of big names like those, the league is also filled with tons of young potential in guys like Will Wade, Mike White, and Bryce Drew. Almost every team in the league that has seen a coaching change has a better coach than they did a few years ago (except Missouri. I wouldn’t let Cuonzo Martin coach junior high).
And, of course, we can’t forget the players. Kentucky has been a one-and-done destination ever since the rule was implemented, but recently more and more SEC schools are able to snag the elite talent that typically was destined for Duke or Kansas. Missouri pulled No. 1 Michael Porter, Jr., and while that has unfortunately turned into a shit show for everyone involved, it is a testament to SEC schools’ ability to land top players. On top of Porter, Collin Sexton at Alabama and Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, and P.J. Washington at Kentucky gave the SEC five of the fifteen top recruits in 2017. From a team standpoint, the conference had three of the top seven recruiting classes for 2017 following up on four of the top fourteen in 2016 and three of the top eight in 2015. Top to bottom, there is simply a lot more talent on the sidelines and on the hardwood than there used to be.
With conference play off to a fast start, this promises to be a pretty damn exciting next two months in SEC basketball. Florida started the year looking like front runners until losing four out of five. Then Texas A&M took over that mantle before dropping their last three in a row. Every time a team looks to establish themselves as favorites, we get yet another shakeup. Anyone who tells you they know who is going to win the SEC this year is bullshitting you and with so many talented teams, it really is anybody’s race (except Vanderbilt, sorry guys). Even better, as the RPI and polls show, the parody isn’t because nobody is good. It’s because everybody is good. In a league typically dominated by a few blue bloods, this is an experience that SEC hoops fans rarely get to have.
The last three conferences to win both the football championship and the basketball championship in the same school year were the SEC, the SEC, and the ACC, coming from Florida/Florida in 2006-07, Alabama/Kentucky in 2011-12, and Clemson/UNC in 2016-17. The SEC’s football title is already wrapped up (unless you’re giving it to UCF, which I’m cool with) and the way things are going, there’s no reason to think the SEC can’t make it three of the last four. This well-established football conference has become a real player on the college hoops scene and, with all the talent throughout the league, there is no reason to think that trend is going to end anytime soon.