Benfred: SEC becoming a hoops league? Believe it!
Southeastern Conference officials recently visited St. Louis to see Scottrade Center’s recent upgrades.
They stared up at the new high-resolution scoreboard, toured the redesigned locker rooms and reported back to league headquarters that St. Louis officially is ready for the SEC men’s basketball championship.
In March, for the first time in the league’s history and for the last time until at least 2026, the event will call St. Louis home. The one-year departure from the tournament’s usual hub in Nashville, Tenn., couldn’t come at a better time.
Missouri basketball, you might have heard, is on the cusp of a renaissance.
The same can be said for the state of SEC hoops.
In years past, any positive comment about the football league’s basketball product induced eye rolls. I’m here to tell you this year should be different. But first, let’s revisit where things went wrong.
For far too long, the SEC ignored a developing basketball dilemma. The league had devolved into Kentucky, Florida — then it fell off a cliff.
“Those of us who have covered SEC basketball for a long time have heard the refrain for years,” said Chris Dortch, editor and publisher of the highly-regarded Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. “I think there’s been a clause in every coach’s contract that states, during media events every preseason, he must say, ‘This is the toughest I’ve seen our league in a long time,’ or ‘I think we’re going to get five, maybe six NCAA bids this year.’ Well, as we’ve seen in recent years, there’s been an undeniable backslide in quality of SEC basketball.”
Kentucky won national championships in 1996 and 1998. Florida won in 2006 and 2007. From 1997 through 2008, the SEC landed either five or six teams in each NCAA Tournament.
But six SEC teams have not danced together since, and the conference’s only men’s basketball championship in the past decade was claimed by Kentucky in 2012. Last year’s total of five SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament marked just the third time since 2008 that a handful from the league experienced March Madness together.
The blame can be passed around. Some regrettable coaching hires — Kim Anderson, Tony Barbee, Donnie Tyndall and Rick Ray — come to mind. A softer-than-Charmin approach to non-conference scheduling didn’t help.
Finally, the slide has been stopped.
“SEC basketball is truly back,” Dortch said. “Or maybe it’s better than it’s ever been.”
South Carolina’s Final Four run and the presence of three SEC teams in the Elite Eight last season were obvious signs of the reputation renovation. No conference totaled more NCAA Tournament wins last season than the SEC’s 16.
Look closer, and other factors emerge.
A clamp-down on ridiculous nonconference scheduling forced teams to stop sabotaging the league’s strength of schedule. The addition of former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as the conference’s basketball consultant helped strengthen a downtrodden psyche.
Member schools spent more money to hire proven coaches over small-conference call-ups. Most importantly, the talent level is on the rise.
Twenty-six of ESPN’s top-100 recruits signed with SEC schools. Early NBA mock drafts predict six SEC players could be first-round projections. Mizzou’s Michael Porter Jr., Texas A&M’s Robert Williams and Alabama’s Collin Sexton have lottery-pick potential.
Fifth-ranked Kentucky reloads elite talent annually under coach John Calipari, and there is no sane reason to write off the Wildcats as a national championship contender. Cal’s roster holds eight former five-star recruits.
Reigning SEC coach of the year Mike White, so far, has proven himself as a capable heir to Billy Donovan, who set a championship expectation at Florida. All-SEC guard KeVaughn Allen returns for the eighth-ranked Gators. A top-20 signing class joins.
Kentucky and Florida are the two constants. But others have gained ground. At least seven SEC teams have a shot at the NCAA tourney. That would be an all-time high.
No. 25 Texas A&M features a frontcourt duo that no team wants to face. Williams and Tyler Davis return after second-team all-conference selections a year ago.
Mizzou’s hiring of coach Cuonzo Martin and his signing of a top-five recruiting class turned what was perhaps the worst major-college basketball team into an instant contender.
Alabama coach Avery Johnson also inked a top-10 class and returns forward Braxton Key, who made last year’s all-conference freshmen team.
It used to be that a middle-of-the-pack SEC team was a bad team. Now it might be a nationally-ranked team.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is back under an NCAA black cloud, but his team meshes its top four scorers from a year ago with a top-20 class. Georgia big man Yante Maten was a first-team all-conference selection last year, and should compete for the league’s player of the year award.
The state of Mississippi might hold the league’s most productive college guards in Quinndary Weatherspoon (State) and Deandre Burnett (Ole Miss). Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew brings back loads of experience and outside shooting talent from a group that got a taste of the tournament. Arkansas welcomes back two senior guards (Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford) from the group that took national champion North Carolina to the wire in the second round.
The basement of the conference used to be easy to predict. Now? Filled with teams daring you to write them off.
Rick Barnes has as history of big third seasons, and that’s where he’s at with Tennessee. New Louisiana State coach Will Wade wins everywhere he goes. South Carolina hasn’t received much love after a Final Four appearance, a risky move considering the fight Frank Martin instills in his teams.
One longtime SEC assistant coach told me the league’s current landscape reminds him of the mid-to-late ’90s, when a deep and talented conference churned out three national champions in five years.
St. Louis gets a front-row seat come March.