With Mississippi State’s loss in the NIT Semifinals on Tuesday night, every Southeastern Conference team has ended its basketball season. Here are a few thoughts.
There were no great teams in the SEC this year
The SEC set a record by landing eight teams in the NCAA Tournament this year — never before had the conference landed more than six. (It’s not the most in percentage terms, however — in 1987 the SEC landed six bids, but there were only ten teams in the conference then.)
And yet, there weren’t any truly great teams in there. Nobody was seeded higher than 3, six of the eight teams lost in the first weekend of the tournament, and the other two lost in the Sweet 16. Tennessee was the conference’s highest-rated team in KenPom, but the Vols’ +22.25 AdjEQ made them the SEC’s worst “best” team since 2008 (oddly enough, that was also the last time Tennessee was the best team in the conference.) In 2017, the SEC got five teams in the NCAA Tournament and managed to play 16 NCAA Tournament games — thanks to a Final Four run by South Carolina and Elite Eight runs by Florida and Kentucky. In 2018, the SEC got eight teams in the tournament and played 16 games.
Which is a better outcome? To be honest, I don’t know. Having a league that’s pretty balanced from top to bottom is fun, but perception of a league is driven much more by the teams at the top than the teams at the bottom — this is why, for instance, the ACC has been highly thought of as a basketball conference in spite of often having some truly wretched teams at the bottom of the standings (hi, Kevin Stallings.)
In all fairness, Auburn was something close to an elite team until Anfernee McLemore got hurt; the Tigers were ranked 9th in KenPom before the injury but fell all the way to 22nd at season’s end. Both Auburn, pre-injury, and Tennessee were very much teams where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts; Tennessee didn’t have a single player on the roster who was rated as a Top 100 recruit. And the Vols lost on a last-second shot to Loyola-Chicago.
Meanwhile, Kentucky never really meshed and lacked anybody who could stretch the defense. Florida had the opposite problem: they had good guard play but never got a healthy John Egbunu, which made them too dependent on the three ball and a rather bad rebounding team. Texas A&M had a great frontcourt and spotty guard play, along with what looked to an outside observer like severe chemistry issues. Arkansas was only the 8th-best team in the conference at forcing turnovers, which is the one thing Arkansas teams coached by Mike Anderson are supposed to be good at. Missouri had severe depth issues thanks to injuries, a couple of midseason transfers, and a dismissal. Alabama was too content to let Collin Sexton play 1-on-5.
The lack of great teams let the naysayers still have a point against the SEC. After the first day of the Sweet 16, there were no SEC teams remaining in the tournament.
There weren’t any awful teams, either.
Ole Miss finished in 14th place in the SEC this year. The Rebels won five SEC games, went 12-20 overall, and had a KenPom AdjEQ of +6.44, good for 107th in the country. KenPom goes back to 2002, and in that time span, the SEC’s worst team has always been worse than Ole Miss was this year. And since the SEC went to an 18-game conference schedule in 2012-13, the SEC’s last-place team has never gone better than 3-15 in the conference.
Every other team in the conference finished the season ranked in the top 90 of KenPom. Vanderbilt went 12-20, but the Commodores played the 7th-toughest schedule in the country. And they, along with Ole Miss, were the only teams to finish the season with a losing record overall.
South Carolina was expected to have a rebuilding year after losing most of the core players from the Final Four run; the Gamecocks still managed to go 17-16. Georgia went 18-15, which wasn’t good enough for Mark Fox to keep his job, though it’s also jarring to imagine how bad that team would have been without Yante Maten. LSU rebounded from an awful 2016-17 to make the NIT in Will Wade’s first season. And Mississippi State had its first winning season since 2012 and made it to the NIT Final Four.
Oh yeah: next year should be good, too.
Looking forward to next year, the SEC won’t drop off much, if at all.
Tennessee and Auburn, the conference’s two co-champions, have one senior between them — and that was Tennessee bench player James Daniel. Neither team has a player projected to be a first-round NBA Draft pick in NBADraft.net’s latest mock draft. Oh, yeah, and Auburn will be getting Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley — both of whom were suspended for the 2017-18 season — back next year. These teams are going to be as good as they were this year.
Kentucky will, of course, suffer defections to the draft — but probably less than usual, and also as is always the case, the Wildcats have some more talented recruits coming in. Florida does have to replace a couple of seniors, but having KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, and Keith Stone returning is a good place to start. Texas A&M is losing Robert Williams to the draft, but most of the Aggies’ other key players are projected to return. Alabama is almost certainly losing Collin Sexton to the draft — but everybody else is returning.
Two of the eight NCAA Tournament teams may take a dip, though. Missouri was largely carried by Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett, both of whom are graduating, but Cuonzo Martin is continuing to build up the roster so the drop-off shouldn’t be too severe. And, five of Arkansas’s top six players in 2017-18 were seniors; the Razorbacks will take a step back (though less of a step back than it looked like before freshman phenom Daniel Gafford announced he’s returning to school.)
As far as the six teams that missed the tournament? We’ll get the two obvious ones out of the way: Georgia and Ole Miss are both suffering significant personnel losses and both will have a new coach in 2018-19. I’m much more bullish on Tom Crean than Kermit Davis in the long-term (the latter of whom feels like a “change for the sake of change” hire, because he seems quite similar to Andy Kennedy), but as far as next season goes, I expect both of these teams to struggle.
Mississippi State, on the heels of a 25-win season and an NIT run, is returning literally everybody; the Bulldogs have no seniors and no players projected in the first round of the draft (though one or both of the Weatherspoon brothers may test the waters.) It’s a good bet that the Bulldogs will break their nine-year NCAA Tournament drought. LSU and Vanderbilt will both have future players in tonight’s McDonald’s All-American Game. South Carolina will get Chris Silva back, and maybe he’ll have some help next year.
Right now, every fan of an SEC school has a reason to feel good about their program’s immediate future. And that’s not something we’ve been able to say in a while.