If you had any doubt that Kentucky is once more in control of the SEC, you needed to look no further than 2015-16.
This was supposed to be a season where the Wildcats would get clearly upended by some other teams. Sure, they had a shaky season a couple of years ago, and they haven’t always been the kings of the conference during the John Calipari era, but for the most part they have been there. This time, though, it wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did. There was a Vanderbilt team that was supposed to be good. There was Ben Simmons coming in to make LSU relevant and maybe more. There was Texas A&M, a team on the upswing and sure to be motivated after being left out of the NCAA Tournament a year earlier.
Then there’s the reality of this Kentucky team. Last year, they lost several high-profile recruiting battles that they win most of the time; in fact, it was big news when Jamal Murray re-classified up a year so he could play this past season at Kentucky, as he was originally part of the class of 2016. That means they didn’t come into this season with the usual high-powered recruiting class full of players sure to be in Lexington for just one season.
In the end, Kentucky ruled the roost, though Texas A&M beat them in a regular season thriller and captured the top seed for the SEC Tournament. The unfortunate thing in the bigger picture is that it happened while the rest of the conference as a whole had a tough time.
Vanderbilt made the NCAA Tournament, but it’s debatable whether or not they should have. The Commodores whiffed on pretty much every quality win opportunity in non-conference play, then lost in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, but apparently did just enough. They were symbolic of the conference as a whole. LSU never got going, and while Simmons was a double-double machine and was all over the media coverage of college basketball, the Tigers struggled on defense all year. It didn’t help that Keith Hornsby was hurt at times, Antonio Blakeney struggled shooting and Tim Quarterman was either very good or invisible. South Carolina had a great non-conference run and had some good wins in SEC play, but an NCAA Tournament bid was not forthcoming; Frank Martin has them in a good place, though.
Kentucky’s arch-rival, Florida, had an up-and-down first season under Mike White. The Gators have been right there with the Wildcats most seasons of late, but not this time. Elsewhere, the conference had some good teams but with undistinguished resumes – teams like Georgia and Ole Miss. Only Kentucky and Texas A&M had RPIs inside the top 50; seven teams had RPIs between 55 and 97.
A lot of that, of course, comes from non-conference performance, and that’s an area where SEC teams frankly stunk this season. Yes, they won over 65 percent of non-conference games in 2015-16, but they had a losing record against the other four Power 5 conferences as well as the Big East. A couple of the numbers aren’t pretty, either: 8-12 against ACC teams, 7-12 against the Big 12, 3-8 against the Big East, 1-8 against the Big Ten, and 1-6 against the Pac-12. For that matter, they were 3-5 against Atlantic 10 schools and lost the only time they faced off against an Ivy League school, when Auburn lost to a Harvard team that was down from previous years at the Diamond Head Classic.
The SEC has been known for its prowess on the gridiron, and that reputation is well-earned, even if it does lead to some unnecessary hyperbole. SEC schools have had plenty of success on the diamond as well, and this spring gave us the latest example. But basketball seems to be the laggard, and it’s in that vein that we look at a move in the conference office that might normally slip under the radar as potentially significant. In June, the SEC hired Dan Leibovitz, a former college and NBA coach who was most recently in the same capacity in the American Athletic Conference. Leibovitz is a great basketball mind and one of the really good people in the business, and the move garnered a good deal of attention in part because the conference has been flagging on the hardwood.
In other important news around the conference, one school had a coaching change after the season was over. After 17 seasons in Nashville, Kevin Stallings left Vanderbilt to become the head coach at Pittsburgh. The school hired Bryce Drew, who was most recently was head coach at his alma mater Valparaiso, to succeed him. There was talk that Stallings could have been let go.
The SEC has plenty going for it, but that hasn’t shown up consistently on the hardwood in some time. 2015-16 was the latest instance of that, and just like the ACC at times looked like it wasn’t much more than Duke and North Carolina, the SEC right now looks like there isn’t much more to it than Kentucky.
Missouri did not participate in the SEC Tournament since they were ineligible for postseason play. That meant the tournament opened up with just one game on the first day, which saw No. 12 Tennessee blow out No. 13 Auburn 97-59.
The second round had four good games, with only one being decided by double digits – and that wasn’t a blowout, either. No. 8 Florida beat No. 9 Arkansas 68-61, then Tennessee shocked No. 5 Vanderbilt 67-65, seemingly dooming the Commodores to the NIT. No. 10 Alabama beat No. 7 Ole Miss 81-73, then No. 6 Georgia closed out the day by beating No. 11 Mississippi State 79-69.
The quarterfinals were a bit more orderly, though not without upsets. No. 1 Texas A&M opened the day by knocking off Florida 72-66, then No. 4 LSU beat Tennessee 75-64 to end the Vols’ run. No. 2 Kentucky ran away from Alabama 85-59 and Georgia edged No. 3 South Carolina 65-64.
In the semifinals, Texas A&M embarrassed LSU 71-38, putting a bad end to LSU’s disappointing season. Kentucky also advanced with a 93-80 win over Georgia.
That led to the championship game, where the Wildcats and Aggies matched up in another dandy. They already had an epic overtime game in College Station in February, and this one didn’t disappoint as they needed overtime once again. But this time, it was Kentucky who came out on top, claiming their 29th SEC championship with a 72-66 win.
Player of the Year: Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons, LSU
Coach of the Year: Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M
Defensive Player of the Year: Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
Sixth Man of the Year: Duane Notice, South Carolina
Michael Carrera, Sr. F, South Carolina
Damian Jones, Jr. C, Vanderbilt
Jalen Jones, Sr. F, Texas A&M
Stefan Moody, Sr. G, Ole Miss
Jamal Murray, Fr. G, Kentucky
Retin Obasohan, Sr. G, Alabama
Ben Simmons, Fr. F, LSU
Tyler Ulis, So. G, Kentucky
- LSU freshman Ben Simmons was the only player in the conference to average a double-double.
- South Carolina won the Paradise Jam, beating DePaul, Hofstra and Tulsa, en route to an undefeated mark before SEC play.
- Arkansas set a school record for three-point field goal percentage, shooting 39.7 percent from long range.
- Ole Miss won 20 games for the eighth time in ten seasons under Andy Kennedy, after doing so just seven times in 96 years prior to his arrival in Oxford.
What we expected, and it happened: Missouri had a rough year. Year two in a rebuilding situation is almost always a big challenge, and it certainly was for the Tigers as they barely reached double-digit wins on the season.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: With Simmons’ arrival and that of travel teammate Blakeney, LSU was supposed to suddenly be relevant and then some. They did beat Kentucky, but that was an aberration as the Tigers disappointed and saw no postseason play.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Texas A&M tied for the regular season title and grabbed the top seed in the conference tournament. There was reason to believe the Aggies would be pretty good, but a year after just missing the NCAA Tournament, chances are few thought they would do this and be the only SEC team to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Team(s) on the rise: Mississippi State and Auburn. Ben Howland has gotten to work quickly in Starkville, and Malik Newman’s transfer might not be so bad, especially as they bring in another solid class for 2016-17. Meanwhile, Bruce Pearl is already getting results on the recruiting trail, and with Mustapha Heron leading the way the Tigers have a big influx of talent coming in that will boost them.
Team(s) on the decline: Vanderbilt. Bryce Drew can coach, and in time there’s reason to believe he will have them winning. But with the Commodores suffering heavy personnel losses as he comes in, one shouldn’t expect them to be a clear NCAA Tournament team heading into next season.
2016-17 SEC Outlook
The SEC will again be Kentucky’s to lose, as the Wildcats return production and bring in another loaded recruiting class. There will probably be growing pains, as is often the case with such youth, but they will have the most talent in the conference once again.
After that, the next team to talk about might be South Carolina. Frank Martin has nicely built the Gamecocks to this point, and despite losing the heart and soul of the team in Michael Carrera they appear ready to break through and reach the NCAA Tournament.
From there it appears wide open. Texas A&M loses a great deal, and while they have good young talent and a solid post anchor in Tyler Davis, they will have many more unproven pieces. LSU watched Simmons and Quarterman leave early, and while they still have talent, there’s little reason to bet on them to contend. Vanderbilt likely took a good hit personnel-wise, as did Georgia and Florida. Ole Miss always seems to find a way to be at least a first division team under Andy Kennedy.
The most interesting teams might be ones who finished near the bottom with new head coaches and have a talent influx coming. Namely, that would be Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama. Mario Kegler leads Mississippi State’s excellent class, and losing Malik Newman might not be all bad for them. Auburn has a big influx of talent coming in, while Alabama won a few games they probably should not have and adds a good class for Avery Johnson’s second season. Any one of these three teams could make a nice leap in the standings.
One thing will remain the case next season, and it’s the question of who can challenge Kentucky and join the Wildcats among the conference’s signature programs. And as has been the case, this question is less about Kentucky than it is about everyone else in the conference.