You’re going to have to prove it, SEC basketball.
“This is a good league with good teams and good players,” Arkansas guard Dusty Hannahs said recently at SEC media day, looking rather annoyed at questions about a general lack of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for anybody not named Kentucky.
“It’s kind of like we’re all the pretty girl with the big winter coat on and no one looks at her until she takes her coat off,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “Well, you guys gotta take a hard look at us and say, ‘Hey, you know what? This league might be just as good as some of these other leagues.’ ”
Right now, no one is saying that.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, which tips off Friday, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects just three of the SEC’s 14 teams to make the NCAA Tournament: Kentucky (1 seed), Texas A&M (7 seed) and Florida (8 seed). CBS’ Jerry Palm gives the league one more, barely: Vanderbilt as an 11 seed. And why would anyone expect differently? The SEC has been a three-bid league three times in the last four seasons.
“The SEC is improving. It’s not quite there yet,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “With Kentucky being separated – and they’re separated – it’s hard. The other teams in the league have to beat Kentucky to sort of prove to the committee they’re legit.”
The Wildcats, who’ve been to four Final Fours, two NCAA title games and won a national championship in seven seasons with John Calipari, are ranked No. 2 to start this season. No other SEC team is in the top 25.
Kentucky has a roster loaded with six former 5-star recruits – the same number as the rest of the league combined: Mustapha Heron at Auburn, Antonio Blakeney at LSU, PJ Dozier at South Carolina, Robert Hubbs at Tennessee, and Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson at Florida.
“Obviously, Kentucky is the best team by far. Or it should be the best team by far, talent-wise,” Bilas said, but he likes the Gators, Aggies and Georgia to also make the NCAA Tournament. “The question is who’s going to jump in behind, whether it’s going to be a team like Arkansas or Vanderbilt or Alabama, and you wind up with five, maybe six NCAA Tournament teams coming from that conference.”
That would earn the SEC a little more of the respect it craves. Until then, a preview of the coming season:
THE MACHINES HAVE SPOKEN
Sports Illustrated does an incredibly cool thing each preseason, ranking all 351 Division I basketball teams with a system that projects the productivity of every roster using high-level data and simulates the entire season 10,000 times. Beep-beep, boop-boop, and the computer says …
The SEC stacks up like this nationally: 3. Kentucky, 31. Florida, 37. Texas A&M, 54. Vanderbilt, 58. Georgia, 61. Arkansas, 62. Ole Miss, 68. Mississippi State, 77. South Carolina, 79. Auburn, 87. Alabama, 99. Tennessee, 104. LSU, 190. Missouri. That puts eight teams within striking distance of the NCAA Tournament.
Thanks to a series of smart hires in recent years, 11 of the league’s 14 head coaches have NCAA Tournament experience. These guys have combined for 83 appearances: Tennessee’s Rick Barnes (22), Kentucky’s John Calipari (17), Mississippi State’s Ben Howland (10), Auburn’s Bruce Pearl (8), Arkansas’ Mike Anderson (7), Georgia’s Mark Fox (5), South Carolina’s Frank Martin (4), Texas A&M’s Billy Kennedy (3), LSU’s Johnny Jones (3), Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy (2) and Vanderbilt’s Bryce Drew (2).
“I’m willing to put the coaching staffs that we have in this league up against anybody,” Martin said.
Barnes, Calipari and Howland have been to Final Fours. Anderson, Martin and Pearl have reached the Elite Eight. Billy Kennedy just took the Aggies to the Sweet 16. Even the three coaches who’ve not been dancing have strong credentials.
Alabama’s Avery Johnson was the 2006 NBA Coach of the Year. Florida’s Mike White averaged 27 wins during his final three seasons (all NIT appearances) at Louisiana Tech. Both men are entering Year 2 at their current stops. Missouri’s Kim Anderson inherited a mess with the Tigers, but a Division II national title in 2014 suggests he knows how to coach.
These men, and an uptick in recruiting, are reason to believe league-wide improvement is coming.
The SEC lost six NBA draft picks – No. 1 Ben Simmons (LSU), No. 7 Jamal Murray (Kentucky), No. 17 Wade Baldwin (Vanderbilt), No. 28 Skal Labissiere (Kentucky), No. 30 Damian Jones (Vanderbilt), No. 34 Tyler Ulis (Kentucky) – plus eight other All-SEC players: Retin Obasohan (Alabama), Stefan Moody (Ole Miss), Michael Carrera (South Carolina), Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida), Kevin Punter (Tennessee) and Jalen Jones, Alex Caruso and Danuel House of Texas A&M.
The league added 16 top-100 recruits, per Scout.com’s rankings. Kentucky got five: No. 6 De’Aaron Fox (PG), No. 11 Bam Adebayo (PF), No. 12 Wenyen Gabriel (SF), No. 13 Malik Monk (SG) and No. 27 Sacha Killeya-Jones (PF). Mississippi State, impressively, also got five: No. 47 Schnider Herard (C), No. 60 Mario Kegler (PF), No. 73 Lamar Peters (PG), No. 78 Eli Wright (SG) and No. 80 Tyson Carter (PG).
The rest of the SEC’s blue-chip freshmen: No. 25 Mustapha Heron (SF, Auburn), No. 46 Robert Williams (PF, Texas A&M), No. 55 J.J. Caldwell (PG, Texas A&M), No. 70 Clevon Brown (PF, Vanderbilt), No. 82 Braxton Key (PF, Alabama) and No. 93 Tyree Crump (SG, Georgia).
We love shiny new things, especially in the one-and-done era of college basketball, but several veterans will shape the SEC this season.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe and senior forward Derek Willis will be the glue that holds another young Kentucky team together. If the Razorbacks earn an NCAA invite for the fifth time in the last 16 years, it’ll be because junior forward Moses Kingsley, preseason SEC Player of the Year, is as good as advertised.
Georgia senior guard J.J. Frazier and junior forward Yante Maten should be among the best inside-out combos in the league. Florida hopes sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen, junior forward Devin Robinson and senior guard Kasey Hill are ready to fulfill their former blue-chip recruiting status. Gators junior center John Egbunu is also as formidable a presence inside as there is in the league.
Texas A&M sophomore center Tyler Davis – who might be the SEC’s most gifted player outside of Lexington, Ky. – and Vanderbilt senior forward Luke Kornet, both future pros, bear the burden of carrying teams that lost a ton of talent after last season.
Bilas is right, that it’ll help other teams in the league to beat Kentucky, but for the SEC to get real respect, it has to make some noise in the nonconference. Scheduling has improved dramatically, but just playing good teams isn’t enough. Gotta win a few of those marquee matchups.
To that end, opening night is pretty lame for the SEC on Friday – Georgia plays No. 34 Clemson (in Sports Illustrated’s rankings) and Vanderbilt plays No. 51 Marquette, and that’s about it – but there are many chances for credibility-building wins the rest of the way.
Kentucky will face (again from the SI rankings) No. 2 Kansas, No. 6 North Carolina, No. 13 Louisville, No. 16 UCLA and No. 28 Michigan State. Tennessee gets No. 6 UNC, No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 9 Gonzaga. Florida plays No. 1 Duke and No. 40 Oklahoma. South Carolina will see No. 14 Syracuse and No. 23 Michigan. Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama all face No. 25 Texas, while the Crimson Tide also will tackle No. 4 Oregon.
So the formula for improving the league’s profile is simple: Beat somebody.
How will it all shake out? We peeked into the crystal ball and gave it a shot:
NCAA Tournament teams: Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina (Yeah, we did it, picked six SEC teams to make The Dance. That hasn’t happened since 2008. But the breakthrough has to happen sometime, right?)
Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky (Non-UK Division: Mike White, Florida)
Player of the Year: De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (Non-UK Division: Tyler Davis, Texas A&M)
Defensive Player of the Year: Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky (Non-UK Division: Moses Kingsley, Arkansas)
Freshman of the Year: Malik Monk, Kentucky (Non-UK Division: Tyree Crump, Georgia)
Highest draft pick: Bam Adebayo, Kentucky (Non-UK Division: Devin Robinson, Florida)
Final Four: Kentucky, Duke, Oregon, Kansas