What does the SEC – the football juggernaut – have beyond Florida and Kentucky on the hardwood?
That’s the big question this off-season. It was already a discussion point during the season and postseason, and it’s not going to end now. The SEC had a 12-3 record in the NCAA Tournament, but Kentucky and Florida combined for 10 of those wins and thus carried them to that mark.
When it was all said and done, the SEC ended up with three teams in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee was the only team besides Florida and Kentucky to make it. The conference had four teams in the NIT, with LSU and Arkansas each winning a game before getting bounced without a chance to go to New York.
Georgia finished tied with Kentucky for second in the standings, but didn’t have enough good wins to reach the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas beat Kentucky twice, but didn’t have enough good wins otherwise. LSU and Missouri each cracked 20 wins overall but didn’t have enough good wins to get there.
Then the one team that really went out and played opponents – Alabama – couldn’t beat them. The Crimson Tide played a non-conference schedule that among power conference teams was rivaled by perhaps only Kansas and Boston College in terms of road and neutral site opponents, and they ended up closer to the Eagles than the Jayhawks.
You see the pattern here. Beating other SEC teams right now is just not good enough because the conference teams aren’t winning enough games against good teams in non-conference play. Sure, the SEC was 140-58 against teams outside the conference this season. They even went 10-5 against the ACC. But they were 5-9 against Big 12 teams, 3-5 against the Big East, 6-6 against the Big Ten, 6-7 against the American and 2-5 against the Pac-12. And if you dig deeper, the ACC mark is less impressive, as just three of those 10 wins came against an NCAA Tournament team from the ACC – Missouri’s win at NC State and Tennessee’s win over Virginia (at home) in December, along with Florida’s third-round win over Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament.
Will next year be better? A lot of good talent will come back. Kentucky will have much more returning than anyone could have ever imagined, as Willie Cauley-Stein, the Harrison Twins and Dakari Johnson all bypassed the NBA Draft. Arkansas and LSU will both bring back a nice core of underclassmen, as will Florida, though the Gators were a senior-laden team this past season. Tennessee lost Jarnell Stokes early and also had a coaching change, so the Volunteers will be an unknown.
Another part of the question of what the SEC has going for it involves coaches. Despite reaching the NCAA Tournament this year, Tennessee didn’t seem terribly fond of Cuonzo Martin, who headed west to take the job at California. His replacement, Donnie Tyndall, can certainly coach, so the Volunteers don’t suffer a total loss. Meanwhile, Frank Haith was thought to be on thin ice at Missouri despite a 76-28 record, so he took the chance to leap to Tulsa. Kim Anderson will take his place. Auburn also changed coaches, with Tony Barbee being let go in favor of former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl. That hire could make things interesting given that Pearl has been a winner, although he also has a show-cause tag until August.
Certainly, the SEC isn’t helped by the departure of Martin despite doing a good job, or even Haith. Whether the end result is a net plus remains to be seen. That will help answer the all-important question: what does the SEC have on the hardwood beyond Florida and Kentucky?
The first round saw two double-digit games to get the tournament going, with South Carolina beating Auburn 74-56 and Mississippi State beating Vanderbilt 82-68.
The second round started off with a double overtime thriller, won by Missouri 91-83 over Texas A&M. South Carolina then edged Arkansas 71-69, which might have been the final blow to the Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament hopes. The night session had two double-digit games with LSU beating Alabama 68-56 and Ole Miss beating arch-rival Mississippi State 78-66.
The quarterfinals started with three ho-hum affairs, then saved the best for last. Florida drubbed Missouri 72-49, then Tennessee took care of South Carolina 59-44 and Kentucky beat LSU 85-67 in a rubber match after splitting in the regular season. In the finale, Georgia edged Ole Miss 75-73.
Tennessee gave Florida a good battle in the first semifinal before falling 56-49. Kentucky made it look a little easier in beating Georgia 70-58. That set up the championship game that most expected, and it was a dandy just like the two regular season meetings. Florida pulled out a 61-60 win to complete their perfect run through the conference.
Player of the Year: Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
Freshman of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan, Florida
Sixth Man of the Year: Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
Defensive Player of the Year: Patric Young, Florida
Jabari Brown, Jr. G, Missouri
Jordan McRae, Sr. G, Tennessee
Johnny O’Bryant, Jr. F, LSU
Casey Prather, Sr. F, Florida
Julius Randle, Fr. F, Kentucky
Trevor Releford, Sr. G, Alabama
Jarnell Stokes, Jr. F, Tennessee
Scottie Wilbekin, Sr. G, Florida
- Florida went undefeated in conference play.
- Kentucky and Florida both made the Final Four, with the Wildcats reaching the national championship game.
- Kentucky was second in the country in rebounding margin.
- Kentucky freshman Julius Randle was among the nation’s leaders with 24 double-doubles.
- Although Florida was known for their defense, it was Texas A&M that led the conference in field goal percentage defense.
- Florida won the Global Sports Challenge.
- Missouri won the Las Vegas Invitational with wins over Northwestern and Nevada.
What we expected, and it happened: Painful rebuilding continued at South Carolina and Mississippi State, though not without some bright spots in both cases. The Gamecocks had one of the conference’s top freshmen in Sindarius Thornwell, beat Kentucky during the regular season and won two SEC Tournament games. Mississippi State had a much better time in non-conference and also won an SEC Tournament game.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Sure, Kentucky made a great run to the national championship game. But the Wildcats were thought to be a juggernaut, and they were hardly that. This team had some serious growing pains, although they almost ended up with the ultimate goal of a national championship.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Florida ran the table and was clearly the conference’s best team. Most figured Kentucky would come out on top, although Florida certainly didn’t figure to be stiffs. An undefeated run by the Gators was a real surprise.
Team(s) on the rise: LSU. Johnny Jones is winning a lot of big recruiting battles and bringing enough talent in to have this team in the NCAA Tournament very soon.
Team(s) on the decline: Alabama. Has Anthony Grant peaked in his tenure in Tuscaloosa? The Crimson Tide mentor can recruit and coach, but they haven’t been able to go to another level following their NIT runner-up finish a couple of seasons ago. Now Trevor Releford, who carried them at times this season, is gone.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Look for Kentucky to be everyone’s favorite not just in the SEC next season. The Wildcats have great incoming talent and now plenty of returning talent to boot. Florida will be good, but lost so much production and experience that the Gators won’t look like a team that can top the Wildcats. That said, Billy Donovan has continued to remind us just how good a coach he is every year, so they can’t be counted out.
LSU and Arkansas both return a lot and should be among the top teams, and Georgia and Missouri can’t be counted out. If someone might emerge from the bottom half into the top half, it could be South Carolina, as the Gamecocks had some good accomplishments this season to fire up Frank Martin’s squad for next season, when they have more experience.
The questions surrounding the conference after the favored Wildcats tells us that at first glance, next season could have us asking the same question: who does the SEC have on the hardwood beyond Kentucky and Florida?