Final thoughts on a wildly successful 2018-19 SEC basketball season
That’s a wrap. Virginia won its first national championship. College basketball is officially over for the next 7 months, and SEC fans will re-shift their focus to football with some baseball sprinkled in.
But before we turn the page, it’s only fitting that we look back on the year that was in SEC hoops.
These are my final thoughts on the year that was in the SEC:
The key NCAA Tournament feat
I bet you looked at that headline and thought, what do you mean by “wildly successful?” After all, the SEC missed out on a national championship for the seventh consecutive year, and it failed to put a team in the title game for the fifth consecutive year.
But putting 4 teams in the Sweet 16 matters. Before this year, that hadn’t happened since 1996. In fact, this year marked just the third time in conference history that it sent 4 teams to the second weekend.
Here was the Sweet 16 breakdown by conference:
- ACC: 5
- SEC: 4
- Big Ten: 3
- Big 12: 1
- Pac-12: 1
- WCC: 1
- AAC: 1
Ask any coach and they’ll tell you the significance of getting to the Sweet 16. They’ll tell you about all the extra attention your team receives by getting an additional week. It’s much more memorable feat than just having 4 teams win that first-round matchup, which the SEC has accomplished several times.
Keep in mind that the SEC is just 3 years removed from not even having 4 teams in the entire NCAA Tournament. And shoot, last year, no SEC team made it beyond the Sweet 16.
Perhaps even more impressive was that none of the 4 SEC teams that made the Sweet 16 were surprises. Auburn was technically the only team that wasn’t considered a favorite to reach that point, but that was after the Tigers were under-seeded to begin with.
It felt like the SEC belonged.
The key NCAA Tournament hurdle
Yes, while the SEC deserves praise for the Sweet 16 feat, there’s a stat that stands in the conference’s way as it tries to assert itself. That is, a non-Kentucky SEC team hasn’t won a Final Four game since Florida repeated as national champion in 2007.
Some might brush off a stat like that because it’s not quite as glaring as something like the Big Ten going 20 years without a title. And after all, Auburn became the third different non-Kentucky SEC team to reach the Final Four since 2007 (Florida and South Carolina were the others). Many would argue that Auburn should have ended that streak this year.
Think about this, though. Yes, the NCAA Tournament is a totally different postseason than anything we’ve seen in the BCS/Playoff era of college football. But picture if SEC football was without a non-Alabama Playoff/national title win in the past 12 years.
The narrative would be, “it’s Alabama and everyone else.” That’s certainly been the narrative by some anti-SEC folks during given years, but the counterpoint is obvious. Even if you take Alabama out of the SEC, the conference still has more national titles since 2006 (4) than any other conference.
So can you see why that might matter as it relates to hoops relevancy? During this 2008-19 drought of non-Kentucky SEC teams winning a Final Four game, here’s a breakdown of how many teams each conference had play for a national title:
- ACC: 3
- Big East: 3
- Big Ten: 3
- Big 12: 2
- SEC: 1
- C-USA: 1
- WCC: 1
- AAC: 1
- Horizon: 1
Will that stat be thrown around by an opposing Power 5 coach in a living room as negative recruiting against an SEC school? Probably not. But that 12-year stretch is basically about as far back as a recruit is going to remember anything (a crazy thought, I know).
Having said that, this year did a lot to show that the SEC isn’t just 1 blue blood and everyone else.
I don’t think that’s the last we’ll see of Auburn and Tennessee
Both had special teams with veteran rosters that will be extremely difficult to replace. Would I bet on them to each win 30 games next year? Nope. But would I bet on them to have more special teams with their current coaches? Absolutely.
What Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes did at their respective programs sort of embodied what this rise of SEC basketball was all about. They made football-crazed fan bases become extremely captivated with their teams, and with good reason. They played unselfish basketball, and even though they weren’t starting lineups filled with NBA guys, the talent was evident when they were clicking on the offensive end (that happened quite a bit).
A ton of things are up in the air with what Auburn and Tennessee will look like in 2019-20 and beyond. But I think both of their basketball brands took a significant step up this year. That’ll help with recruiting, fan support and all of that.
Obviously there’s no guarantee that Auburn will have someone catch fire in clutch moments like Bryce Brown could, and there’s no guarantee that Tennessee will have a 4-year guy physically and mentally develop like Admiral Schofield did.
Incredibly proud of my guy @admiralelite15, All-SEC Forward for the Tennessee Vols … arrived in Knoxville at 268 with 11% body fat and is now down to 235 w/ 5%. Nothing but discipline, hard work, clean eating and lots of time on the exercise bike & treadmill #NBA pic.twitter.com/8RGrJZG09K
— Coach Michael Murphy (@hoopsmurphy) September 13, 2018
Those dudes don’t grow on trees. Even if the blue-chip recruits start to multiply, many will fall short of what Brown and Schofield accomplished.
How both programs handle their return to relevance will be interesting to follow.
The coaching turnover is football-like, but in a good way
What Auburn and Tennessee did the past 2 years was perhaps serve as a wakeup call to SEC athletic directors. There’s major opportunity to win big on the hardwood, even at football-crazed schools. The fact that SEC teams have $43 million TV revenue checks rolling in annually now perhaps opened the door for ADs to take a football-like approach to basketball coaches.
I love it.
I loved seeing Scott Woodward go out and poach a top 10 coach in Buzz Williams with a rich new deal.
I loved seeing Alabama decide that the status quo wasn’t good enough and that just because football brings in an absurd amount of revenue, missing the NCAA Tournament in 3 of 4 seasons wasn’t acceptable (and a reported $5.5 million buyout wasn’t too steep of a price to pay).
I even loved the fact that Ole Miss’ controversial move to fire elder SEC statesman Andy Kennedy a year ago yielded the 2019 SEC Coach of the Year in Kermit Davis.
That was sort of the move that got the ball rolling. Look at all the new hires in the SEC since Ole Miss made the midseason switch last February.
[table “” not found /]
Even without knowing the exact future of Will Wade at LSU, that’s still nearly half the conference getting a new basketball coach in the past 14 months. Eleven of the conference’s coaches have at least been to a Sweet 16. And two of the ones who didn’t (Oats and Davis) were in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Even better, John Calipari just signed a lifetime contract to stay at Kentucky, which is pretty important, too.
Time will tell if this truly is the golden era of SEC basketball coaches. I have an easier time making the case for that instead of against it.
One more interesting question: Who will be the next non-Kentucky SEC team to make the Final Four?
Man, that’s tough. I already stated the cases for Auburn and Tennessee, which would be frontrunners. If LSU somehow keeps Wade and Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays both take their names out of the NBA Draft pool after this process — I’m selfishly rooting for 1 more year of that clutch backcourt in Baton Rouge — I’d say the Tigers might have the best chance. That, however is a huge “if.”
Here are two teams I think will make a Final Four in the next 5 years: Florida and Texas A&M.
I know Mike White received a lot of criticism from certain Florida fans thinking he was going to be Billy Donovan 2.0. But the guy has an NCAA Tournament win in each of the past 3 years and 5 tournament wins overall in that stretch. That’s without a single NBA draft pick. That’s an area White must improve in, but I’d say winning 20-plus games in 3 consecutive years without that kind of talent bodes well.
And call me crazy, but I can’t wait to see what happens when Williams gets big-time resources at College Station. With that state to recruit in, his presence is going to be felt without a doubt. I’m all in on that move based on what we’ve seen the last decade from A&M’s new coach.
To recap, there are at least a half dozen SEC teams that could make it to the Final Four in the next 5 years and I wouldn’t be surprised, which is something I definitely wouldn’t have said at any point in recent memory.
I’d say that’s as good of a sign as any for the future of SEC hoops.