SEC commissioner Greg Sankey can claim a step forward. But to college basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy, it’s more like shuffling in place.
“My ratings have them fifth among conferences,” said Pomeroy, describing the state of SEC basketball and his placement of the league on his popular website, KenPom.com. “So kind of in line with where they’ve been in the last decade or so, kind of following that average. I think there’s probably some reason for optimism, given you had new coaches like, certainly, Bryce Drew (at Vanderbilt) had a pretty big impact, Avery Johnson in his second year seems to have Alabama headed in the right direction. So I can see where there are reasons for optimism. But overall, the conference really wasn’t all that much different than it has been in previous seasons.”
Let’s be frank: Football will be the SEC’s golden child as long as smoke rises in the fall from grills near stadiums throughout the South. Basketball is more like a cousin you only think about when you make small talk at get-togethers a few times a year.
Football is a religion in the SEC.
Basketball is a diversion, except for Big Blue Nation.
Still, Sankey created ripples this week when he told Paul Finebaum that SEC basketball can claim progress after five league teams — Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Vanderbilt — received NCAA Tournament invites last Sunday. That sounds cute and dandy, especially considering that only three SEC teams laced up dancing shoes last March.
But Pomeroy says pump the breaks on thinking that SEC basketball is primed to reach heights enjoyed by the Big 12 and ACC.
“I don’t know that I would expect a major change next year,” Pomeroy said. “I mean, Alabama should be better if their core players stay, and the programs that made the tournament this year should remain pretty strong. Arkansas will be pretty experienced next year. They’ll lose some people, but they should still be in the mix for an at-large bid. So nine bids (in the tournament) I think would be unexpected. But if they get six teams in next year, I think that’s possible.
“Generally when you look at conferences, it’s hard to predict their changes from year to year. You can pretty much just bank on stability from kind of looking at the last five years or so and projecting forward. So based on that, I would still say the SEC is in line for a fifth- or sixth-(place) finish among conferences. But we’ll have to see. It’s certainly not inconceivable that they could jump up to third or fourth with a few breaks.”
It’s possible to dream. There are recent SEC success stories that could propel the league forward in 2017-18.
Beyond 30-5 Kentucky, a perennial contender, Florida is 25-8 after beating East Tennessee State in the first round of East Region play on Thursday. South Carolina, with a 23-10 record, reached its first NCAA Tournament since 2004 and beat Marquette on Friday in East Region play. Arkansas entered its second Big Dance date under coach Mike Anderson and improved to 26-9 after topping Seton Hall on Friday in South Region play. Vanderbilt finished a respectable 19-16 under Drew after a dramatic loss to Northwestern on Thursday in the first round of West Region action. Even Alabama, which closed 19-15 after a loss to Richmond in the NIT on Tuesday, made gains under Johnson.
But the data shows how far the SEC must go to catch up to the nation’s basketball behemoths.
Kentucky (fourth) and Florida (sixth) were the lone SEC programs to crack Pomeroy’s top 27 through Friday’s games. South Carolina followed at No. 28, with Vanderbilt at No. 34 and Arkansas at No. 36. Then Alabama checked in at No. 58, before Tennessee (No. 60), Georgia (No. 61), Texas A&M (No. 69), Ole Miss (No. 71), Auburn (No. 84), Mississippi State (No. 93), Missouri (No. 166) and LSU (No. 178) became specks in the distance.
For the SEC to gain more clout nationally, all its parts must pack more punch. Pomeroy tabbed the Big 12 as the country’s strongest conference, followed by the ACC, Big East and Big Ten before the SEC entered the picture.
Pomeroy’s prediction for SEC programs on the rise?
“Assuming Mark Fox is back at Georgia, they obviously have guys,” he said. “Almost everybody on that roster should be back next year. Rick Barnes at Tennessee has seemingly got that program on an improving track, and they’re a pretty young squad. So those are two programs I think that you’d think would be in pretty good shape and possibly be in the mix to get into the tournament next year.”
Steps forward are fine. But longer strides should be the goal, even if it’s hard to see a massive change in the SEC’s trajectory.
“If I had to bet on what would happen, I’d bet that the SEC will probably be like a lot like it was this year, with two, maybe three really solid teams and four or five middling teams that are all scrambling to get to the tournament,” Pomeroy said about the league’s prospects next season. “It’s really hard to predict big changes in a conference from year to year. … Based on that, I would expect more of the same from the SEC. A few teams in the tournament, but maybe not making a huge splash on a national stage.”
Baby steps first. Bigger gains later.