TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Southeastern Conference team no one expected to make the Final Four in Phoenix is now the short-term model for nearly everyone else in the league, including Alabama.
“Be like the South Carolina Gamecocks” could be a rallying call for the upcoming 2017-18 men’s basketball season. With high expectations for Kentucky and maybe Florida, the rest of the league hopes for a similar leap forward. Each wants to move up in the conference standings and then have a postseason to remember, much like South Carolina did a year ago.
“Hopefully we’ll be ready to take that take step,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. The Crimson Tide certainly has the potential to land just its second NCAA Tournament invitation since 2006 this season — and then, who knows?
Alabama went 19-15 last season, and 10-8 in league play, which was good enough to tie Ole Miss and Vanderbilt for fifth in the SEC, only to land yet another NIT appearance.
Meanwhile, South Carolina ended up making the biggest run and being the surprise of the NCAA Tournament. Seeded seventh in the East Regional, the Gamecocks upset Duke in the second round and then beat Baylor by 20 in the Sweet 16. With a 77-70 victory over Florida, they advanced to the Final Four.
Having three teams in the Elite Eight — Kentucky bowed out to eventual champion North Carolina, 75-73 — gave notice to the league’s rising status. Alabama fans were quick to note that the Crimson Tide were the last team to beat the Gamecocks prior to the NCAA Tournament. They also won their other matchup as well in four overtimes — 90-86 on Feb. 7, when host South Carolina was ranked No. 19.
While there’s no doubt that Alabama is a better team on paper than it was a year ago, having added a terrific recruiting class led by guards Collin Sexton and John Petty, there’s no guarantee that will translate into a jump up in the SEC standings.
That’s not a knock on the Crimson Tide, because the league is stepping up its game as well.
Kentucky looks like a completely different team again after De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo were all top 14 picks in the 2017 NBA Draft. However, Hamidou Diallo, who enrolled for the second semester but did not play, opted against going pro. John Calipari added another uber-talented recruiting class that includes Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington.
“We’re going to be really young,” the coach said, but he’s won big with that kind of roster before.
Florida may have lost Canyon Barry, Devin Robinson and Kasey Hill, but it has added big man Isaiah Stokes and shooting guard DeAundre Ballard. The Gators return Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen in the backcourt while John Egbunu is back from an ACL tear.
“The league obviously has a lot of momentum right now,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Most people would agree that the preseason prognostications are as high as they’ve been in quite some time. Hopefully … not only hopefully, but I think we’ll make a bang.
“We have a number of teams, a bunch, that will have a chance to be in the conversation [for the NCAA Tournament].”
Arkansas and Texas A&M were solid last year and shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Razorbacks finished third in the league and made the NCAA field. Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford both withdrew their names from the NBA draft and coach Mike Anderson added a solid recruiting class.
The Aggies are coming off a 16-15 season when they had a very young team, plus Robert Williams elected to return to school after being projected by many to be a lottery pick in the draft. Plus, the Aggies have added Marquette transfer Duane Wilson, who can play this season.
Auburn should be better. Georgia could be, too. Vanderbilt is coming off a tournament bid.
Don’t forget about South Carolina, either.
“Any time you play on that platform, it opens up doors,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “It has more people speaking about you. It validates that you can win at South Carolina. It doesn’t necessarily make recruiting easier.
“Our recruiting pool got bigger.”
The SEC team getting the most buzz, though, is the one that finished last in 2016-17 — Missouri. New coach Cuonzo Martin landed the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Michael Porter, along with standouts Jeremiah Tilmon, Reed Nikko and Kevin Puryear. The Tigers also added Canisius grad transfer Kassius Robertson, who is known for his shooting, and return their three top scorers.
It’ll be interesting to see how the freshman-loaded team fares, but Las Vegas has Missouri on the short list of national contenders.
“I think it’s great,” Johnson said. “Cuonzo is making a heck of a run. It’s good for Missouri and it’s good for the SEC. I think it’s going to continue to upgrade SEC basketball.
“We have to have really good wins against each other in conference and hopefully some of the losses we encounter against each other won’t be as devastating because our conference is going to be much stronger. The RPIs are going to be a lot higher and our strength of schedule is going to be really good.”
That’s the plan. Improving the overall level of competition was an important step in the league’s resurgence, as it looks to improve on last year’s total of five teams in the NCAA field.
Alabama aims to lead that wave, and is already on the court practicing for an upcoming trip to Canada, although it’s hardly alone. A lot of teams are going to be tougher to beat. The games will be tighter and no one can be taken for granted.
“I’m just hoping Alabama is up there,” Johnson said.
He knows that only with a good nonconference showing plus that kind of finish can the Crimson Tide even have a chance at piecing together a South Carolina-type run.