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2016-17 SEC Post-Mortem

August 7, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The SEC has been labeled a “football conference” for obvious reasons in recent years, and that has not been entirely a compliment to their success on the gridiron. In part, that has been a knock on basketball. Aside from Kentucky and usually Florida, what the conference has on the hardwood has been in some question in recent years. The basketball product has not been very good, especially compared to other high-major conferences. But if the NCAA Tournament and the postseason are any indication, the conference could be starting to turn the corner.

First, the SEC had a great postseason run. They played three teams in the Elite Eight – the only conference to do that – though only one went further. That one team was not Kentucky or Florida, but rather, South Carolina, a program that had never been that far and had little NCAA Tournament success to speak of in its entire history. Frank Martin, however, had other ideas from the outset when he took this job, and the magical run his team went on is the culmination of what he has done to this point.

As if that wasn’t enough, the conference has added a couple of excellent head coaches at the two schools that made changes, and one of them has already brought some an elite talent that should make them an interesting team to watch.

After the season ended, LSU fired Johnny Jones, replacing him with former VCU head coach Will Wade, and Missouri fired Kim Anderson, replacing him with former Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. Wade has had a great run of success as a head coach, which follows what he did as an assistant at Harvard and VCU before that. For Martin, this marks a return to the SEC, as he had been head coach at Tennessee before heading west to Cal.

Alabama is another team on the rise under a relatively new coach, and they showed promise this year as well. The Crimson Tide have a solid recruiting class coming in next year, so they along with Missouri are primed for a better 2017-18 season.

Add in Texas A&M appearing likely to rebound from a slump year, Vanderbilt making the NCAA Tournament in Bryce Drew’s first season at the helm, Auburn bringing in good talent that will now be more experienced, and Ole Miss continuing its historic run under Andy Kennedy, and you get the idea that the SEC should do a lot better starting next season when it comes to non-conference performance than it has in recent years. SEC teams actually posted a 9-7 mark against Big 12 teams, but that was the only high-major conference they had a record above .500 against. They were 27-39 against the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12. That has a lot to do with why the SEC has been at or near the bottom of the Power 5 conferences on the hardwood, and also being beneath the Big East in terms of recognition.

The SEC hasn’t had the best of times in recent years on the hardwood, and Kentucky and Florida have provided most of the bright spots. South Carolina just provided another one, and as several other programs show promise, there is reason for SEC fans to be optimistic that while they probably won’t match what’s on the gridiron, better times are ahead at long last.

Final Standings

South Carolina
Ole Miss
Texas A&M
Mississippi State

Conference Tournament

Nashville was home to the SEC Tournament for the third straight year, and it will be there for six of the next eight years as well. After an odd move to St. Louis next year, it comes back to Nashville for three years, then returns for three more after going to Tampa in 2022. This time around, three games were won by the lower seed, and the tournament had a few thrillers along the way.

The tournament opened with No. 12 Mississippi State putting No. 13 LSU out of its misery with a 79-52 thumping that would end up being Johnny Jones’ last game as the head coach of the Tigers, then No. 14 Missouri knocked off No. 11 Auburn 86-83 in overtime.

The second round began with No. 9 Georgia, a tough-luck team all year, breaking through in a close game, edging No. 8 Tennessee 59-57. No. 5 Alabama ran away from Mississippi State 75-55, then in the night session, No. 7 Vanderbilt hammered No. 10 Texas A&M 66-41 and No. 6 Ole Miss ended Kim Anderson’s tenure at Missouri with an 86-74 win over the Tigers.

The quarterfinals started with a couple of 11-point games as No. 1 Kentucky beat Georgia 71-60 and Alabama beat No. 4 South Carolina 64-53. In the evening, Vanderbilt beat No. 2 Florida for the third time, this one a 72-62 overtime win that likely put them in the NCAA Tournament. That wasn’t all, though, as No. 3 Arkansas and Ole Miss played a dandy to close the day, one that saw Arkansas prevail 73-72.

In the semifinals, Kentucky got a good challenge from Alabama but held on for a 79-74 win, then Arkansas took care of Vanderbilt 76-62.

The championship game was not in doubt for too long. Kentucky closed out a season in which they were pretty clearly the best team in the conference all year long, beating the Razorbacks 82-65 behind tournament MVP De’Aaron Fox.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Rookie of the Year: Malik Monk, Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Mike White, Florida
Defensive Player of the Year: Robert Williams, Texas A&M
Sixth Man of the Year: Canyon Barry, Florida

All-SEC Team
KeVaughn Allen, So. G, Florida
J.J. Frazier, Sr. G, Georgia
Yante Maten, Jr. F, Georgia
De’Aaron Fox, Fr. G, Kentucky
Malik Monk, Fr. G, Kentucky
Sebastian Saiz, Sr. F, Ole Miss
Sindarius Thornwell, Sr. F, South Carolina
Luke Kornet, Sr. C, Vanderbilt

Season Highlights

  • South Carolina made its first Final Four appearance.
  • The SEC tied the Pac-12 for the most teams in the Sweet 16 with three, and all three advanced to the Elite Eight, which topped the Pac-12.
  • Ole Miss senior Sebastian Saiz was the only player in the conference to average a double-double on the season, and he posted 22 of those along the way.

What we expected, and it happened: Kentucky was the class of the conference. We have come to expect this pretty much every year, and this one was no exception. The Wildcats did just that, winning the conference by two games and winning the conference tournament.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Auburn has brought in some good talent of late, and the Tigers were expected to make a leap in the standings. They won 18 games, but finished 11th in the conference with a 7-11 mark, including a 4-5 record at home.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Texas A&M took a tumble, and finished above .500. The Aggies lost a ton of talent and experience, so taking a step back was expected, but not this drop. With Robert Williams returning to again form a dynamic post duo with Tyler Davis, the Aggies have a good base for next season so long as the guard play is better. They were last in the conference in turnover margin thanks largely to giving the ball away more than all but two teams.

Team(s) on the rise: Alabama. The Crimson Tide wasn’t too far away from making the NCAA Tournament this season, and could have had a couple of close games gone a little differently. With a lot of this team back, and the arrival of a great class of newcomers, they should certainly by in the field of 68 next season.

Team(s) on the decline: Tennessee and LSU. You could put Arkansas and South Carolina here in the short term, as both teams lose a lot off this year’s roster, but both should regroup. The Volunteers, on the other hand, have been a middle-of-the-pack team of late and now lose Robert Hubbs III. At LSU, the bottom fell out this year, leading to Johnny Jones being let go. Will Wade will start fresh.


2017-18 SEC Outlook

Any talk of SEC favorites in most years begins with Kentucky, and next season is no different. The Wildcats will again be loaded with talent, but the big question is where the veteran leadership will come from.

After that, however, is where it gets interesting. At first glance, based on returning talent and experience, Florida looks like their most likely challenger. But Alabama brings back a good talent in Braxton Key and brings in a nice class led by perimeter talents Collin Sexton and John Petty, and they could leap right into contention, especially since Arkansas and South Carolina both lose quite a bit. Then we have more questions than answers.

Could Texas A&M have a big rebound? They should be better next season after a down year, especially if they get good guard play to complement the dynamic duo of Williams and Davis up front. Can Ole Miss go a step further? They have been consistently good under Andy Kennedy, but contending is another matter, especially with Saiz departing. Is Auburn now ready to surge forward behind Mustapha Heron and Daniel Puriefoy, as well as additional talent that should contribute right away? Missouri has a new coach and brings in the nation’s top recruit, which should make them better – but how much better? What to make of Vanderbilt and Tennessee, who each lose their best player, and Georgia, who was a tough-luck team and returns one of their two first team All-SEC players in Yante Maten? Is Mississippi State on the verge of hitting .500 or better in SEC play and becoming more of a factor?

LSU needs to reboot in Will Wade’s first year, but he got a nice building block late when he landed Tremont Waters to run the show. Given Wade’s track record, we should expect the Tigers to exceed expectations to at least some degree.

In all, the SEC should be intensely competitive next year. Kentucky will have the most talent, but with a vacuum as far as veteran leaders go, the Wildcats should not be viewed as a prohibitive favorite.

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