Can the SEC Carry Last Year’s Tournament Success into the New Season?

Posted by David Changas on October 20th, 2017

When the 2017 NCAA Tournament began, it appeared to be business as usual with respect to the SEC’s potential success. Kentucky, as always, was very young, but seemed like the only school from the conference capable of making a deep run — and even that possibility seemed dubious. South Carolina limped into the postseason with a golden opportunity to start the Big Dance in its own backyard, and used the de facto home court advantage in nearby Greenville to pull off a shocking Second Round upset of Duke. That win became a springboard to subsequent wins over Baylor and fellow SEC member Florida on the way to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance. Kentucky took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the wire in another Elite Eight match-up before succumbing to the whimsy of Luke Maye. It was the biggest showcase the downtrodden basketball conference had put on in over a decade, and while the Gamecocks fell short of their ultimate goal, their run to the sport’s final weekend far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectation.

South Carolina’s surprising run may be the start of something special in the SEC. (cbssports.com)

The question for the the SEC now is whether it can carry last year’s momentum into any sort of sustained success. Based upon the improved level of coaching and recruiting outside of Lexington, it appears well-poised to do so. The SEC on paper appears strong enough that Frank Martin‘s Gamecocks — coming off that Final Four appearance — were picked to finish 11th by the assembled media in this week’s preseason poll. As usual, Kentucky, which brought in another monster recruiting class that is rivaled nationally only by Duke, was picked to win the league. The Wildcats will once again be extremely young but incredibly talented. Florida’s near-miss last year is proof that Mike White is a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan, and the Gators are themselves primed for yet another deep run.

Notwithstanding the serious questions surrounding Auburn, Alabama and the FBI, both schools — neither of which have had any real success since the turn of the millennium — are poised to make the Big Dance. Texas A&M is another popular pick to win the league, as it returns preseason all-conference selection Tyler Davis and likely lottery pick Robert Williams along with three other starters. Meanwhile, Mike Anderson appears to have solidified things at Arkansas, as the Razorbacks returned to the NCAA Tournament for a full weekend last year, and Rick Barnes has stabilized things at Tennessee. Bryce Drew is on the verge of landing a couple of five-star commitments at Vanderbilt, and Ben Howland, likewise, has Mississippi State pointed in the right direction. Will Wade, who by any measure is a drastic improvement at LSU over beleaguered former coach Johnny Jones, has had some early success on the recruiting trail. Cuonzo Martin jumped back into the SEC at Missouri after a three-year stint at Cal, bringing with him the Class of 2017’s best player, Michael Porter. Mark Fox and Andy Kennedy continue to be steady and consistent at Georgia and Ole Miss, respectively.

This improved outlook is not meant to suggest that the league will necessarily load up on postseason bids this season, but the overall trajectory of the conference appears to be very good. Of course, the flip side to that is given where the conference has been over the past several seasons, marginal improvement should not be all that difficult. The league’s relative lack of success has been puzzling given its talent base, and runs like what we witnessed last March should therefore become more commonplace. Clearly some of the risky — and flat-out bad — hires made by administrations not fully committed to success in basketball were largely to blame. Many of those disappointing coaches have now been replaced by others carrying track records of significant success or who are considered rising stars in the coaching ranks. It is likely that the increased revenue and exposure from the SEC Network has also compelled those schools to make bolder hires, but the landscape of the conference is well beyond where we were just a few short years ago when fans could hope for only a handful of NCAA Tournament bids.

Everyone associated with SEC basketball knows that talk is cheap, however, and that improvement on paper does not mean anything if the results don’t show up on the court. But given where the league has been over the past several years, the optimism expressed by the assembled coaches at this week’s SEC Tipoff is both refreshing and encouraging. Furthermore, it’s a welcome change from the doom and gloom that accompanied the start of this preseason.

David Changas (133 Posts)


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