Ranking the SEC men’s basketball head coaches after 2017 season
The SEC is a basketball conference? Maybe not, but coaching talent across the SEC ranks with any other conference in the country.
After this spring’s dismissals of Johnny Jones and Kim Anderson at LSU and Missouri, respectively, the conference is without a true minus coach. Resurgence at South Carolina and high-profile hires at Tennessee and Mississippi State improve SEC coaching quality even more.
To judge, we evaluated a great deal of criteria. Instead of focusing on career resume, we emphasized recent success. For that reason, big-name coaches won’t necessarily get full credit for all previous stops. It’s more a judgment based on where everyone stands on April 13, 2017, not based on legacy.
We placed the newcomers at the bottom of the list to start. Both will move up quickly with experience at their current programs.
Without further ado, here’s how the SEC basketball coaches grade out after the 2016-17 season.
*Note: Coaching records only include Division I programs.
14. Will Wade, LSU
Career record: 91-45 (none at LSU)
Tourney appearances: 2 (none at LSU)
Wade proved to be a good coach during his 2 years at VCU. However, a 4-year sample size is awfully small for a coach taking over the mess at LSU. His teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament both years at VCU, but it’s unclear how big a factor the infrastructure played. The Rams haven’t won fewer than 24 games since 2006. Wade has plenty to prove.
13. Cuonzo Martin, Missouri
Career record: 186-121 (none at Mizzou)
Tourney appearances: 2 (none at Mizzou)
Wade will probably move up this list after next season. Martin will explode up the ranks. Heck, he could be competing for a top-5 spot if Missouri can live up to its crazy Year 1 hype (so don’t punch me, Mizzou fans). Martin signed 5-star forward Michael Porter Jr. and has the inside track for top-30 big man Jeremiah Tilmon. After winning 8 games last season, the Tigers’ transformation should be immediate. Martin also has winning experience in the SEC — he coached Tennessee to 20 victories in 2 of his 3 seasons.
12. Mark Fox, Georgia
Career record: 268-161 (145-118 at Georgia)
Tourney appearances: 5 (2 at Georgia)
Georgia doesn’t have a ton of basketball history, but Fox is starting to feel underwhelming. The Bulldogs made the tournament twice in eight seasons. Half of those years ended with fewer than 20 wins. For context, Fox coached Nevada to the NCAA Tournament 3 times in 5 years. With senior J.J. Frazier and dramatically improved Yante Maten this likely should have been a tourney team. At some point, Fox’s mediocre recruiting will catch up to him.
11. Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M
Career record: 326-264 (115-85 at Texas A&M)
Tourney appearances: 3 (1 at Texas A&M)
Kennedy caught lightning in a bottle in 2015-16. He brought in a top-5 recruiting class and had a roster with numerous senior leaders. It all came together for an SEC championship and Sweet 16 run, including the biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history. However, that remains the only Big Dance appearance his tenure. The Aggies still have that highly touted recruiting class on campus. It needs to maximize its potential next season.
10. Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss
Career record: 255-153 (234-140 at Ole Miss)
Tourney appearances: 2 (both at Ole Miss)
Kennedy is the winningest coach in Ole Miss basketball. He led the Rebels to nine 20-win seasons, more than every other coach in program history combined. Keep in mind, the Rebels have been playing basketball since 1908. This is a program most well known for losing to Valparaiso at the buzzer. However, Kennedy’s results are pedestrian. It’s hard to know whether Ole Miss can do better, especially considering how much the program’s resources lag behind the rest of the SEC.
9. Rick Barnes, Tennessee
Career record: 635-439 (31-35 at Tennessee)
Tourney appearances: 22 (none at Tennessee)
When it comes to pure resume, Barnes ranks with anyone in the SEC. Twenty tournament appearances in a 22-year career at Providence, Clemson and Texas, including a Final Four run in 2003? That speaks for itself. Unfortunately, Barnes was far less successful by the end of his tenure in Austin. Initial returns at Tennessee are disappointing.
8. Avery Johnson, Alabama
Career record: 37-30 (all at Alabama)
Tourney appearances: None
This ranking is based a bit on faith. Johnson is a former NBA coach of the year who won a Western Conference championship. He improved Alabama quickly after arriving 2 years ago. The Crimson Tide qualified for the NIT in both of his seasons in Tuscaloosa. Now, Johnson brings in 5-star point guard Collin Sexton to run his NBA-style offense. It’s tournament or bust for Johnson.
7. Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Career record: 328-172 (128-74)
Tourney appearances: 8 (2 at Arkansas)
Anderson is an average SEC basketball coach and probably nothing more. He finally got back to the tournament this spring, and his Razorbacks were seconds away from upsetting eventual champion North Carolina in the Round of 32. Arkansas performance has been inconsistent across his tenure at a relatively good basketball program. The expectation will be to string together tournament appearances in 2018.
6. Bruce Pearl, Auburn
Career record: 275-153 (44-54 at Auburn)
Tourney appearances: 8 (none at Auburn)
Wins are a work in progress at Auburn, which is the only thing holding down Pearl on the list. However, Pearl’s stint at Tennessee was legendary stuff. The Vols made the NCAA Tournament every year Pearl coached the team. Tennessee even made the Sweet 16 multiple times and the first Elite Eight in program history. If Pearl hadn’t run into NCAA issues, he might still be at Tennessee. However, Auburn is among the tougher jobs in the SEC. The Tigers haven’t qualified for the tourney since 2003. That will be the expectation for Pearl next season.
5. Bryce Drew, Vanderbilt
Career record: 143-65 (19-16 at Vanderbilt)
Tourney appearances: 3 (1 at Vanderbilt)
Ranking Drew this high might be based on potential to an extent, but it’s hard to question his coaching acumen. While at Valparaiso, Drew won the Horizon League regular-season title in 4 of his 5 seasons. Keep in mind, Drew was coaching against Butler coach Brad Stevens for his first 2 crowns — winning the Horizon was an accomplishment. Though a bad bubble helped, Vanderbilt qualified for the tourney in his first season. It was the first stretch of consecutive tourney appearances for the Commodores since 2012.
4. Mike White, Florida
Career record: 149-64 (48-24 at Florida)
Tourney appearances: 1 (at Florida)
Poaching White from Louisiana Tech was a risk. The 40-year-old had yet to make an NCAA Tournament with the Bulldogs after 5 years. Especially considering that Florida was replacing hyper-elite coach Billy Donovan, the hire could have been panned. After missing the NCAA Tournament his first year, White guided Florida to the Elite Eight this spring. Had they not run into South Carolina’s team of destiny, the Gators might have been in the Final Four. White is starting to look like a heck of a hire for former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.
3. Ben Howland, Mississippi State
Career record: 429-241 (30-33 at Mississippi State)
Tourney appearances: 10 (none at Mississippi State)
We mentioned at the beginning, this rating is built far more on recent success and current quality. Howland’s Mississippi State squads are a work in progress after winning a combined 30 games in his first two years. However, the body of work is just too good to ignore. Howland’s stretch of going to 3 consecutive Final Fours between 2006 and 2008 is rare. He also proved his coaching ability by winning the ACC twice while at Pitt. Of course, he needs more success at Starkville to avoid slipping down the list and coasting on reputation.
2. Frank Martin, South Carolina
Career record: 213-128 (96-74 at South Carolina)
Tourney appearances: 5 (1 at South Carolina)
Call it an overreaction to a Cinderella run, but Martin deserves all the credit he got. Even without a Final Four run this spring, he would belong firmly in the top-5. Martin took over a team that had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973. Since then, the program had been to the tournament 4 times. Martin remained unfazed. The past two seasons, South Carolina won a combined 51 games and made its first Final Four run. Martin put the SEC on notice — South Carolina isn’t going anywhere.
1. John Calipari, Kentucky
Career record: 694-193 (249-53 at Kentucky)
Tourney appearances: 18 (7 at Kentucky)
What even needs to be said? Nine Elite Eights. Six Final Fours. Three national title games. The SEC’s lone active coach with a national title. Short of Billy Donovan returning to Florida, no one is touching Coach Cal. There’s a reason he’s already in the Basketball Hall of Fame — Calipari is among the best in the business. With the resources at Kentucky, that’s not changing anytime soon. Even scarier? Calipari signed 5 5-star prospects in his next recruiting class. It might be the best yet.