The Southeastern Conference is consistently the best overall collegiate league in several sports. Football receives the most attention – it’s the most popular sport in the country – but the league is also the strongest conference in baseball, softball, gymnastics and golf.
The one sport where the SEC struggles to produce on a national level on a yearly basis is basketball. Yes, Kentucky and Florida have won titles in recent years, but that’s about it for the SEC. Aside from the Wildcats and the Gators, the overall depth of the league in basketball has been severely lacking over the past decade.
In the last two years, however, numerous SEC schools have made coaching changes that could impact the trajectory of the league for the next decade. Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi State all hired new coaches. Each new hire was a substantial upgrade over the previous coach.
Auburn made the first big move after the conclusion of the 2013-14 season. The Tony Barbee era was a disaster. Despite having a lavish new arena, the Tigers were stuck at the bottom of the conference. After firing Barbee, AU athletic director Jay Jacobs moved swiftly and hired former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.
Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee ended tumultuously. He was fired after withholding information from the NCAA about hosting recruits at his home. Pearl had tremendous success at Tennessee, including an NCAA Tournament appea-rance every season and an Elite Eight berth in 2010.
As soon as Pearl accepted the job at Auburn, he immediately made an impact. He quickly put together a solid recruiting class for 2014 and set up the framework for a top 20 class for 2015. The Tigers struggled for most of Pearl’s first season but ended the year with three wins in the SEC Tournament and a positive outlook for the future for the first time in over a decade.
Alabama swept Auburn in the regular season and finished with a better record last year. By the end of the season, however, it became evident to UA athletic director Bill Battle that he had to move on from head coach Anthony Grant. The program had stalled since reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2012, and with Auburn’s program suddenly gaining traction, Battle made the tough decision to replace Grant.
After an effort to hire Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall fell through, the Crimson Tide made the surprising move of hiring former NBA coach Avery Johnson. Prior to accepting the Alabama job, Johnson had no experience coaching in college. His last coaching job in the NBA with the Brooklyn Nets ended poorly.
Johnson had great success as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, however, and his team made the NBA Finals in his first year as a head coach. Johnson won Coach of the Year honors in 2007 after the Mavs won 67 games, and as a player he won a title under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.
Whatever concerns there were about Johnson’s ability to recruit were quickly silenced upon his arrival in Tuscaloosa. He assembled a quality recruiting class and his energetic demeanor already has provided a boost to a program that desperately needed one.
When Mississippi State fired coach Rick Ray after the conclusion of last season, it seemed a bit premature. Ray inherited a mess in Starkville and his young Bulldog team was gradually improving. Shortly after Ray was fired, however, MSU hired former UCLA coach Ben Howland.
Howland never won a title at UCLA, but his Bruins made three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008. Howland also was known for his ability to recruit. During his three-year window Howland coached several players that went on to become stars in the NBA in Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Jrue Holiday, Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison. Howland will be able to recruit well at Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs soon will be a factor in the league again.
Tennessee has experienced a rough few years with head basketball coa-ches, as Pearl and Donnie Tyndall were fired due to NCAA infractions. In addition, Cuonzo Martin left for California immediately after making a Sweet 16 run with the Vols. If there’s one thing UT basketball needs, it’s stability.
Enter Rick Barnes, who spent 17 years at Texas. Barnes led the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament in each of those seasons. Barnes made one Final Four appearance and was also able to recruit NBA superstars Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge to play for him in Austin. Barnes is a great recruiter with a proven record and should be able to produce well in Knoxville.
Florida also has a new coach after Billy Donovan left Gainesville to take over as the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Gators hired Michael White from Louisiana Tech, and while White had success with the Bulldogs, he has a tall task ahead of him replacing Donovan. White inherits a talented team but will be under the most pressure of any new coach in the league.
The hires of Pearl, Johnson, Howland and Barnes will provide a significant upgrade for SEC basketball over the next several years. It all starts with recruiting. Only Kentucky and Florida have been able to recruit well on a national level in recent years. Along with the four new hires, teams like LSU and Texas A&M are starting to have more of a national presence in recruiting. Case in point – LSU will have the No. 1 player in the country – Ben Simmons – enrolled this fall. The Aggies are fresh off of a top five recruiting class.
As long as John Calipari remains in Lexington, Kentucky will dominate the headlines in the offseason and during the year. Calipari can get pretty much any player he wants, and the Wildcats will be a factor in the NCAA Tournament almost every season.
That being said, the SEC as a whole should improve drastically within a few years. It’s a stretch to say the league will be on the same level as the ACC in basketball, but the primary goal for the SEC at this point is to produce several relevant teams in March each season. If the quality of the coaches in the league continues to improve, that should not be a problem.