SEC 360: 7 reasons why you should watch SEC basketball this November
You don’t have to tell me. I can see you now, in places like Laurel, Miss.; Graceville, Fla.; and Pine Apple, Ala.
Since college basketball kicks off this upcoming week, I know you’ve been parked in your collective man caves, scouring the Internet, gobbling up any information you can find for each SEC basketball team. Returning starters, new signees, grad transfers, preseason polls, injuries and Player of the Year candidates. Anything, really.
You’ve probably meticulously reviewed several teams’ schedules and can tell me who plays where and which teams will be baking in the sun at one of the beachy early season tournaments scattered throughout the northern hemisphere. You know the depth charts, the emerging team leaders, the stats and the overall tale of the tape.
Hopefully by now you’ve picked up on my facetiousness …
Good morning. My name is Al Blanton. And I am worried about November basketball in the South.
To many Southerners, college basketball in November is kind of like when Scott gets trapped in the closet with his friend Boof in the movie Teen Wolf. Who Scott really wants to date is Pamela, and Boof is a friend, so it’s super awkward. Similarly, you don’t really want to get trapped in a closet with college basketball in November. At least, not if you’re a Southerner.
I know, I know. Pockets of extreme interest do exist in places like North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Indiana, and I know that there are people out there who follow college basketball religiously. But do folks in our part of the country really care that college basketball is here so early?
Because the answer is “not really,” naturally my follow-up question is, “Why not?”
First, I believe that since college basketball overlaps with college football, there’s no significant ramp-up to the season. And because the start occurs during the meat of the college football year, its basketball counterpart emerges almost under the cover of darkness – Wait, there’s a basketball game tonight? So when college basketball arrives like an unexpected package on our doorstep, I just don’t think we’re ready to embrace it yet.
Secondly, we perceive that the games don’t mean anything. As opposed to college football, where an early season loss could bounce you out of contention, college basketball games in November and December don’t seem to matter (we know they ultimately do, but somehow our minds convince us that it’s just not that important).
As a result, quarter-full arenas are dotted throughout the South. Quasi-fans, empty of passion, might check out a minute or two of hoops action on the tube before flipping back to Chicago Fire. It’s kind of sad, really.
Sure, interest begins to pick up after football season, and January and February conference games elicit significant attention, but for the most part America’s interest is not piqued until March Madness. Yes, there are fans out there who care about November basketball, but my contention is they are few and far between.
For the past two years, I’ve attended SEC Basketball Media Days, held in mid-October in Birmingham. I’ve absolutely loved attending this event, primarily because I get up-close-and-personal access to SEC players and coaches, but also because it’s the one event that ignites the fire for basketball inside of me.
When I was coaching, Oct. 15 was always a day that was met with great anticipation. That’s the day basketball practice officially started. Midnight madnesses were going on all over the country, and there was a lot of excitement that basketball was finally here. October basketball had become the norm for me, but when I walked away from the game 10 years ago, my October and November interest waned. It became hard for me to put on my college basketball hat in November when my college football hat fit just fine. No offense, but I just would rather watch Bama-LSU at Death Valley in Baton Rouge than the Maui Invitational. I just would.
Because November is a hustle-and-bustle month anyway (Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping), many Southerners have determined there’s just not enough room on the plate for SEC basketball. With that thought in mind, I decided to conveniently patch together a few reasons why you should tune in this November.
Hopefully you’ll find my arguments at the least, compelling; at the most, convincing.
Golf clap as the SEC welcomes four new basketball coaches in 2019-20: Nate Oats at Alabama, Buzz Williams at Texas A&M, Eric Musselman at Arkansas and Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt.
Oats comes to Tuscaloosa from the University of Buffalo and is looking to resuscitate a once-formidable program that has won eight SEC regular-season and seven conference tournament titles in its illustrious – but, frankly, a bit dusty – history.
Williams returns to College Station (he was an Aggies assistant from 2004-06) after a circuitous career that has included stops at New Orleans, Marquette and Virginia Tech. Williams ushered the Golden Eagles to back-to-back Big East regular-season crowns, and during his five-year stint at Virginia Tech, he led the Hokies to three straight NCAA Tournaments and a Sweet 16 berth.
Musselman touched down in SEC country after a four-year stop in Nevada that produced 110 wins against 34 losses and three NCAA Tournaments.
And, finally, Stackhouse brings his many years of NBA playing and coaching experience to Nashville as the head coach of the Commodores.
Collectively, these Year 1’s ought to be enough to get you fired up (if you know much about basketball), but the presence of Stackhouse alone is enough to get me intrigued.
Say it three times: Anthony Edwards, Anthony Edwards, Anthony Edwards.
No, I’m not talking about the actor who starred in the TV series ER and the movie Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. I’m talking about the freshman combo guard for Georgia rated as one of the top (No. 1, 2 or 3, depending on whom you ask) players in the country in the 2019 recruiting class. So respected is Edwards that he was named preseason All-SEC without setting as much as a foot on the court, and many are projecting him to be the top pick in next year’s NBA draft.
Edwards might not be as big a storyline had he signed up to spend his next year in Lexington, but instead he signed with Georgia, a team that has not nabbed this carat stud since Dominique Wilkins roamed Athens.
Early season tournaments
Earlier in this article, I mentioned how I’d rather watch college football in Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa than basketball in Hawaii. That said, several SEC teams are participating in early season tournaments and classics that should raise an eyebrow. Here are just a few of them:
State Farm Champions Classic – Madison Square Garden, New York
Kentucky vs. Michigan State
James Naismith Classic – Toronto
Tennessee vs. Washington
Charleston Classic – Charleston, S.C.
Participating teams: Florida, Xavier, UConn, Buffalo, Missouri State, Miami, St. Joseph’s, Towson State
Myrtle Beach Invitational – Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Participating teams: Mississippi State, Villanova, MTSU, Tulane
Maui Jim’s Maui Invitational – Maui, Oahu, Hawaii
Participating teams: Georgia, Dayton, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Kansas, Chaminade, BYU, UCLA
Cancun Challenge – Cancun, Mexico
Participating teams: South Carolina, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Boston U, Gardner Webb, Northern Colorado, UT Martin, West Virginia
Nov. 27 and 29
NIT Tip-Off – Brooklyn, NY
Participating teams: Ole Miss, Syracuse, Penn State, Oklahoma State
And just because your mouth is watering for more, here’s some nonconference December action as well:
Mike Slive Invitational – Birmingham, Ala.
Auburn vs. Saint Louis
Never Forget Tribute Classic – Newark, N.J.
Mississippi State vs. Kansas State
Naismith Hall of Fame Invitational – Brooklyn, N.Y.
Florida vs. Providence
CBS Sports Classic – T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Kentucky vs. Ohio State
The big transfer
Kerry Blackshear Jr. caused a tremendous stir this offseason by transferring from Virginia Tech to Florida. Now the 6-foot-10 power forward will see if he can elevate the program to its first Final Four since 2013-14.
— Southeastern Conference (@SEC) October 16, 2019
The Gators are loaded with talent and will compete with Kentucky for the top team in the SEC. Blackshear’s interior presence will be complemented by three returning contributors — Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson — as well as incoming McDonald’s All-Americans Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann.
Jim Collins wrote an important book on going from good to great, and several former freshmen who enjoyed good years in 2018-19 are expecting breakout years in 2019-20. Those players include Isaiah Joe, the Arkansas guard who connected on 113 3-pointers, tying an SEC freshman record. Joe is poised to lead the new-look Hogs into the Musselman era of Razorback basketball and is a Player of the Year candidate.
Reggie Perry, a 6-10 power forward for Mississippi State (9.7 ppg in 2018-19), should double his scoring with the loss of Quinndary Weatherspoon, Eric Holman and Lamar Peters to the NBA. And there’s Ashton Hagans, returning point guard for Kentucky, who should pick up more of a consistent scoring load this year while doling out more than 4 assists per game. Finally, look for Florida’s aforementioned sophomore triumvirate/law-firm-sounding cluster of talent — Johnson, Locke & Nembhard — to provide the backbone for a very scary Gators team that has the capability of winning the SEC and making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky’s new crop
The annual changing of the guard in Lexington is always a mammoth show, but perhaps this year even more so. Gone from last year’s team are Tyler Herro, PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson, but, ho-hum, the Wildcats welcome 5-stars Tyrese Maxey (6-3 G, Garland, Texas), Kahlil Whitney (6-6 PF, Chicago) and Keion Brooks (6-7 F, Fort Wayne, Ind.).
John Calipari has gotten so good at recruiting top-shelf talent that Kentucky ought to think about changing its name to McDonald’s All-American U. And as the dean of SEC coaches begins his second decade at UK, we’ve come to expect the “jell moment” for each of his basketball teams — you know, the “aha” moment when his crop of greenhorn freshmen gets it. But, we’ve also grown not to expect the jelling process to produce a national title by year’s end.
It’s hard to believe that a program with a history as illustrious as Kentucky’s has cut down the nets only once in the past 20 seasons. Can Calipari bring home the title for the first time since 2012?
Look, the story in SEC basketball is always, “What’s Kentucky going to do this year?” and hopefully for those ravenous souls in the Bluegrass State, the answer is bring back the joy of a national title.
“The best the league has ever been”
Last year, the narrative at Media Days was that the quality of Southeastern Conference basketball had never been better. And with seven bids to the NCAA tournament (after eight in 2017-18), last year’s field could certainly make the case. Expect similar results this season.
We gush over Kentucky, but SEC is no longer the Wildcats and everyone else. Auburn made the Final Four last season, South Carolina made the Final Four in 2017, Florida won back-to-back titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07 and Tennessee fell just short of making the Final Four in 2010.
The reason? I think the discussion has to begin with the quality of coaches who thrive in the SEC ecosystem. Listen to these names: Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Rick Barnes, Ben Howland, Frank Martin, Musselman, Tom Crean and Williams. Some coaches are simply too inexperienced (Kermit Davis, Will Wade) in SEC play to be mentioned in the same discussion, but one day, they will be.
I’m glad that coaches like Howland and Barnes have chosen the SEC to catch a second wind. I love to see young coaches like Mike White try to make their bones in this league, but I’m more fascinated with the conference as a whole when big names are at the helm.
Consensus is that this is about as quality a league as there is in college basketball. Here’s what Georgia’s Crean, who spent a large chunk of his career in the Big Ten, had to say about the conference at SEC Media Days last month:
“You start to look at all of the different teams and you look at the level of coaching, and you look at the ability to recruit, you look at the geographical areas that not only people are in, but they can go to, and (the league) casts such a wide net. But, I think it’s outstanding. I’m not as well-versed in each team right now as I will be as we get into the season, but knowing from being in it for a year, knowing that it is so hard to win a game because it is so hard to find an edge.”
So as you’re stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey and weaving through stores trying to find that perfect Christmas gift for your sweetheart, make room in your schedule for some quality college hoops action. You won’t regret it.