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Welcome to the SEC Basketball Renaissance

#SECBasketballFever be damned, the league is as good as it has ever been

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to college athletics, the SEC is at the top when it comes to football but the same can’t be said about the conference when it comes to men’s basketball.

For years, Kentucky has had to carry the burden of an entire conference on its shoulders; sure Arkansas won a national title in 1994 and the Gators went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007, but generally speaking when people talk about SEC basketball, the conversation starts and stops with Kentucky.

Kentucky has eight of the SEC’s 11 championships in men’s basketball; they make up nearly half of the conference’s Final Fours (17 of 36) and about 20 percent of total NCAA Tournament bids (59 of 285). Historically speaking, it’s them and everybody else in the SEC.

But a funny thing has happened to the other 13 men’s basketball programs in recent years: the schools have hired excellent coaches and the quality of the league has increased exponentially

Of the league’s 14 head basketball coaches, 11 have been hired within the past five years. Those 11—aside from Vanderbilt’s Jerry Stackhouse who was a first-year head coach last year—have impressive resumes ripe with multiple trips to the NCAA Tournament and conference championships.

Recently Hired SEC Basketball Coaches

Coach/ Current School Previous School Career Record NCAA Tournament Appearances Conference Championships Conference Tournament Championships
Coach/ Current School Previous School Career Record NCAA Tournament Appearances Conference Championships Conference Tournament Championships
Nate Oats/Alabama Buffalo 112-58 (659) 3 2 3
Eric Musselman/Arkansas Nevada 130-46 (.739) 3 3 1
Mike White/Florida Louisiana Tech 209-105 (.666) 3 3 0
Tom Crean/Geogia Indiana 383-268 (.588) 9 3 0
Will Wade/LSU VCU 158-77 (.672) 2 1 0
Ben Howland/Mississippi State UCLA 497-275 (.644) 11 8 4
Cuonzo Martin/Missouri Cal 236-167 (.585) 3 1 0
Kermit Davis/Ole Miss Middle Tennessee State 438-268 (.620) 6 8 4
Rick Barnes/Tennessee Texas 709-378 (.652) 24 4 1
Buzz Williams/Texas A&M Virginia Tech 269-169 (.614) 8 1 0

But the SEC hasn’t just been bringing in good coaches across, the schools are starting to bring in elite high school talent, too. In 247’s 2020 class rankings, the SEC had seven schools in the Top-25 and five—Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn—were in the top-10 and Alabama was just on the outside at No. 11. If we use the same timeframe that those 11 coaches were hired, the SEC has been signing about six Top-25 recruiting classes on average. Put in other terms, the basketball programs are now starting to recruit at the same level as their football counterparts.

The SEC is experiencing a renaissance on the basketball court. It’s as competitive and as healthy as it’s been since the 1980s. Then, the SEC was a 10-team conference and on average, sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament; between 1986-1989 seasons more than half the league earned NCAA tournament bids.

Compare that to this past decade. At the start of the 2010s, the SEC had 16 NCAA tournament bids between the 2010-2014 tournaments; whereas 15 bids were awarded to the SEC in just the past two NCAA tournaments and of course that number would be higher had the 2020 Tournament not been cancelled. Yes both the NCAA Tournament and the SEC expanded at the start of the 2010s, but the SEC wasn’t taking advantage of those extra bids. Now with schools hiring better coaches, who are in turn recruiting better players the league is enjoying better teams and the SEC is getting more invites to the big dance.

Will the SEC ever be the best college basketball conference? No. That title will always belong to the ACC or the Big 10. Heck even the Big 12 is better than the SEC, case in point the Big 12-SEC Challenge has been in existence for seven years and the SEC has only won outright once. The Big 12 owns a 40-30 overall record, with four wins and a pair of ties. But again, if you look at when the likes of Will Wade, Rick Barnes and Nate Oats came to the SEC, the gap between the two conferences has narrowed; the Big 12 won the first three challenges (2013-2016), But in the four challenges. since 2016, the Big 12 has a win, the SEC has a win and there have been two ties.

I know I’m probably in the minority here: I unironically like college basketball, especially of the SEC variety. I don’t think of basketball season as the downtime between the end of football season and the start of baseball season. The SEC continuing to better its basketball programs is only going to be a good thing for the conference moving forward. It may not be the SEC’s Golden Age of basketball, but we’re definitely experiencing a renaissance.