Even though the NCAA Tournament isn't quite over yet, the SEC is done with men's basketball. That makes now a good time to assess where the conference is at relative to past years.
I used the KenPom ratings for each team to look at how the league has done since expansion in the 2012-13 season. The final ratings for 2016 aren't here yet, but with just three total games to go, no one's rating is going to move dramatically.
|Team||2012-13||2013-14||2014-15||2015-16||Change 2015-16||4-Year Average|
The SEC was down from last season to this season, but I think everyone instinctively knew that anyway. It certainly reflected in the Big Dance bids, as the conference went from five to three (with one of the three being a First Four appearance).
Only three teams got appreciably better this year. The Texas A&M Aggies went from decent to great. The Missouri Tigers went from soul-rendingly bad to merely soul-achingly bad. The Mississippi State Bulldogs made the biggest improvement, going from dreadful to feisty in Ben Howland's first year.
Unfortunately, seven teams—half the conference—dropped at least 20 places in the ratings. Some of these drops weren't a surprise, like the Arkansas Razorbacks and Alabama Crimson Tide tailing off after having heavy personnel losses from a year ago and the Tennessee Volunteers stumbling while breaking in their third head coach in three years. The Ole Miss Rebels dealt with some injuries during conference play, while the Auburn Tigers had a perfect storm of adversity and attrition.
The Georgia Bulldogs and LSU Tigers are less understandable in their falls. Both lost important players from last year—Marcus Thornton from UGA and Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey from the Tigers—but they each returned nearly everyone else. LSU added two of the best freshmen in the country in Antonio Blakeney and Ben Simmons too, but it still managed to dip nearly 50 spots in the standings.
Everyone else more or less treaded water. The Kentucky Wildcats were excellent last year and remained so this year. The Florida Gators maintained their level without Billy Donovan, which is good because Donovan is the program's legend but also bad because the level they maintained wasn't NCAA Tournament quality. The Vanderbilt Commodores less maintained as much as they failed to improve as expected, while the South Carolina Gamecocks consolidated their gains from Frank Martin's rebuild.
Dropping back some from last year isn't a good thing for the SEC, but at least the conference didn't go back to where it was three years ago. An average team rating in the triple digits is flat out embarrassing for a power conference, and the median would've been 95 if you take out Florida's high rating. The SEC was just godawful that season.
There is reason for optimism for the future. Kentucky has the top rated recruiting class in the country (surprise!), so the odds are good that the 'Cats will remain great. Howland made the biggest on-the-floor impact of any of the SEC's new coaches, and he has a top ten recruiting class at the moment. If MSU can keep him around, the program will be vastly improved and stay there. Bruce Pearl's track record suggests he'll get Auburn improved before too long, and he has a top 25 recruiting class lined up at present. So does Mike Anderson at Arkansas. Vanderbilt also now has the opportunity to improve over Kevin Stallings's good-but-not-great history.
The jury is still out on some of the other new coaches. Mike White kept things steady at Florida, but he didn't improve them and hasn't done a lot on the recruiting trail. Nearly all of his team should be back next year barring transfers, so 2016-17 should be a good test for his coaching acumen. Avery Johnson pulled off some big wins with a limited team, but he's losing three of his top four scorers with Retin Obasohan and Arthur Edwards graduating and Justin Coleman transferring out. He too has yet to set the recruiting trail ablaze.
Texas A&M is suffering heavy losses in its guard rotation, but Billy Kennedy's excellent recent recruiting should keep the team afloat. Georgia has made a postseason tournament three years in a row (NIT, NCAA, NIT) since going to five straight from 1995-99 and will return most of its rotation. South Carolina is also on stable footing for what seems like the first time in forever. Arkansas may have dipped this year, but the overall trend is in the right direction as every other year of Anderson's tenure in Fayetteville has been better than his last. Andy Kennedy has Ole Miss a consistent winner for the first time ever, as he has eight 20-win seasons in his ten years there versus just seven in school history before him. And Rick Barnes certainly has a track record of consistent winning that suggests he can build Tennessee back up.
No, the SEC wasn't a great conference this season. It still has real questions, like how much longer Johnny Jones gets at LSU, if Vandy can upgrade from Stallings, whether Kim Anderson can fix Missouri, and what to expect from White and Johnson at Florida and Alabama, respectively.
That said, I am optimistic for the future of the conference. Most programs are making an effort to keep their non-conference schedules strong for the good of everyone. Several schools with highly variable histories have put strong floors under themselves (Ole Miss, Georgia, and South Carolina), while some that have been awful recently have made really strong hires (Auburn and Mississippi State).
I'm not penciling in seven NCAA Tournament bids for next year yet, but the makings of a consistently good power conference are there. The extra money from the SEC Network makes it easier to invest in things beyond just football too, so I can't help but see brighter days for SEC basketball in the near future.