This year, the Southeastern Conference got back to a milestone of sorts. Only two teams in the SEC finished outside the KenPom top 100 — the first time that’s happened since 2006-07.
What happened in the interim was that schools made some coaching hires (and, well, firings) that didn’t work out as planned. Alabama got rid of Mark Gottfried (allegedly for non-basketball-related reasons) and replaced him with Anthony Grant, who made one NCAA Tournament in six years. Arkansas dumped Stan Heath after two straight tournament appearances so that John Pelphrey could go 25-39 in the SEC. Auburn got rid of Jeff Lebo after six years and no NCAA Tournament appearances, then brought in Tony Barbee to extend that to ten years (really eleven, if you count Cliff Ellis’s last season.)
LSU muddled through four years of Trent Johnson and then five years of Johnny Jones. South Carolina hired Darrin Horn. Mississippi State might have let Rick Stansbury hang around for too long — then replaced him with Rick Ray. Even Kentucky had two years of Billy Gillispie, though things were quickly corrected under John Calipari.
But as we move into the Sweet Sixteen and three SEC teams -- Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina -- are still standing, people are beginning to realize that the SEC’s days as a punchline of the college basketball world are close to ending and strong coaching hires are a reason for that. With the hires of Cuonzo Martin at Missouri and Will Wade at LSU, consider that 12 of the 14 men coaching in the league have won an NCAA Tournament game — and of the two that haven’t, one has coached a team to the NBA Finals and the other won the Horizon League four times in five years at Valparaiso (and also very nearly won a tournament game last week.) Nine coaches in the league have now been to the Sweet Sixteen, six have been to an Elite Eight, and three have been to a Final Four. The league now has the youngest coach in a power conference (Wade) and a guy who’s entering his 30th consecutive year as a power conference head coach (Rick Barnes.)
The two most recent hires come on a string of good hires for member schools. Some of these have been established names — Bruce Pearl at Auburn, Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Ben Howland at Mississippi State — but there have also been some young coaches with upside who are working out — Mike White at Florida and Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt are the ones that immediately spring to mind. Cuonzo Martin is almost a cross of these two groups: he’s been a Division I head coach for nine years, but he’s still just 45 and has shown that he can land high-level recruits. Will Wade, at 34, brings to LSU a .669 winning percentage in four years as a head coach.
Some of these hires won’t work out for the simple reason that somebody has to finish last; that’s just the nature of sports. But there is really no school in the league that has a huge question mark in the head coaching department, and that’s a big reason why the league is back on the upswing. The SEC got five teams in the tournament this year and three in the Sweet Sixteen — and it’s easy to see how both of those numbers could be higher next season.