Over the past few years, the SEC has put a reasonable amount of effort into improving the level of basketball in the conference. Many schools have hired big name coaches and some schools have started to renovate basketball facilities. This has already started to pay off on the recruiting trail for a few schools and there is promise for a handful of others as well.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to turn a basketball program around overnight, and it’s even more difficult to change the complete culture of a conference. The SEC has been, and probably always will be a football conference, but I believe they’re serious about making basketball relevant again. This season should see a good bit of improvement on the court, but I don’t expect to see a big jump in the number of teams that the conference sends to the Big Dance this March.
The Usual Lock for the NCAA Tournament
With John Calipari bringing in yet another incredibly talented freshman class and many predicting the Wildcats to make it to the Final Four already, I think it’s safe to say that they’ll be dancing in March. It would take a lot of crazy things and a whole new level of disappointment for the Kentucky Wildcats not to continue carrying the banner for the SEC all the way deep into March this year.
Should Be Dancing
Texas A&M doesn’t have quite the most difficult non-conference schedule, but the Aggies should still be one of the better teams in the SEC this season. Assuming Texas A&M is able to win all of it’s non-conference games that it should win and the Aggies can finish in the top 4 of the SEC, they should be dancing again this season.
Mike White is in year two at Florida and he has the players and coaching skill to get the Gators back into the NCAA Tournament. KeVaughn Allen, John Egbunu, Kasey Hill and the rest of the crew should provide enough talent and depth to allow the Gators to dance again if they can survive a pretty brutal SEC schedule.
March Madness is a Real Possibility
The Gamecocks were on the brink of hearing their name called last March, but ultimately the weak non-conference schedule and a poor finish left South Carolina out of the dance. South Carolina loses a few key pieces but return enough talent that with Frank Martin still at the helm, I think the Gamecocks can get to the Big Dance this year.
Vanderbilt lost two very good players to the NBA draft last season after sneaking into the NCAA Tournament and then promptly being eliminated by Wichita State. This season, the Commodores have a good team with a new coach but lack depth. If they can avoid injuries and hang with some of the better teams in the SEC, Vanderbilt could hear their name called once again in March.
Postseason Bound with a Shot at the Big Dance
Last season Auburn didn’t improve due to injuries and discipline issues. This season, Bruce Pearl has plenty of weapons and a schedule that is plenty strong enough of a resume. If the Tigers can find a winning rotation and get contribution from all the new playmakers, they could end a long drought and return to the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas returns Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley, two of the best players in the SEC from last season, and also adds a handful of the top junior college transfers. Junior college transfers aren’t always a sure thing, but if they’re as good as advertised, the Razorbacks could find themselves running through their easy non-conference schedule and handling the SEC on their way to March.
The Georgia Bulldogs have two of the best players in the SEC this season with J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten returning. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of players after them. There will inevitably be others that step up for Mark Fox, and if the right players surprise me, the Bulldogs could be dancing once again.
Ben Howland brings in top 10 recruiting class nationally and the second best class in the SEC highlighted by six 4-star recruits. Last season Howland brought in another top class, but the Bulldogs still didn’t live up to that hype. This team is definitely better, but young talent doesn’t always automatically equal a ticket to March Madness.
Never Say Never
Alabama brings in a quality group of newcomers including 4-star Braxton Key, highly touted transfer Nick King, and a top junior college recruit in Ar’mond Davis. Avery Johnson, with his NBA experience showed he knows how to get his guys ready to play. If Johnson works some magic this season and key players from last season all improve, the Crimson Tide could make the post season. In the end, I still think Alabama is a year away from contending for the NCAA Tournament.
Ole Miss loses Stefan Moody and other key pieces from last season and doesn’t add a lot to seemingly replace their losses. However, Andy Kennedy has repeatedly proven that he can win in the SEC so I’m not going to completely count the Rebels out. It’ll be an unlikely task, but if Ole Miss can find contribution from players no one is really talking about, it’s a small possibility that the Rebels make a post season tournament.
It’s Not Happening
Missouri had too many issues this offseason and lose some of the little talent they had last season. I definitely wouldn’t put Kim Anderson in my list of top coaches, so while the Tigers will be improved, I think the rest of the SEC is moving a little quicker and so the Tigers will ultimately end up at the bottom of the league once again.
Last season was the opportunity for the Tigers to make the Big Dance. They had the eventual number one draft pick and an excellent supporting cast but even with that Johnny Jones found a way to miss out on March. This season, Jones is still the coach and he’s left with a lot less talent. LSU will be at the bottom of the league this season and Jones will be coaching for his job, not a post season bid.
The Tennessee Volunteers have a brutal non-conference schedule. While they might be able to pull off one upset, it won’t be near enough to build a resume that would even be considered later in the year. The losses won’t stop there as the Volunteers just don’t have enough weapons this season to contend in the new and improving SEC.
If I were to place a bet on a set number, I’d say there will be three SEC basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament this season, most likely Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Florida. I also think there’s a reasonable chance that one or two other teams could join any combination of those three. Four teams in the Tournament will be a win for the league and if somehow five teams hear their names called in March the SEC will have greatly surpassed expectations.
Almost all of the teams in the SEC that have made coaching changes in the past few years have made great choices and those decisions are already starting to pay off. We’re seeing the slow process of turning around programs and a league unfold before our eyes. This SEC will be a competitive league this year but it will ultimately be another year of teams beating up on each other and not enough teams establishing themselves as elite.
To me, next season is the magical, sought after year where the league can potentially send 5-7 teams to the Big Dance. This season will be more about continuing to build fan support and a strong basketball culture along a football dominant conference.