Greg Sankey began his day Jan. 28 at Thompson-Boling Arena to watch Tennessee host Kansas State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. It was set to be a big day for the SEC commissioner, considering his conference was taking a break from conference play to see where it stood against the better-known basketball product of the Big 12.
Early on, it didn’t go so well for Sankey as the SEC dropped the first two matchups.
That began an initial round of rumblings, Sankey said, as to whether the SEC had made the needed progress in basketball, considering it was coming off of a 2015-16 season in which only three teams made the NCAA Tournament — the third time in four years that occurred.
But beginning with that Tennessee-Kansas State game Sankey was present for, a shift took place. Kansas State, a team viewed then as a definite NCAA Tournament attendee but now on the bubble, lost by 12 points to a Tennessee squad with nine losses at the time.
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Auburn then defeated TCU 88-80 and Vanderbilt upset Iowa State 84-78. Two of the Big 12’s top three teams — Baylor and West Virginia, which have both been in the top 15 for most of the year — found themselves in tougher-than-expected games. The Mountaineers had to hold off Texas A&M 81-77 and the Bears barely got by Mississippi 78-75. Georgia defeated Texas and Florida routed Oklahoma. The lone SEC team blown out was Arkansas, which lost 99-71 to Oklahoma State.
After watching Tennessee defeat Kansas State, Sankey traveled to Rupp Arena to take in the Kentucky-Kansas game. The Jayhawks rallied to win 79-73 in a battle of top-five teams, drawing the SEC and Big 12 to a 5-5 tie.
No, the SEC didn’t earn its first win in the challenge series. But drawing a tie with the No. 2 RPI conference in the country, without South Carolina participating, was enough for Sankey to see the gains being made with SEC basketball.
“We had some teams earn victories that maybe people hadn’t anticipated,” Sankey said. “Those last two games were close, competitive games that didn’t fall our way. But we made progress. What we wanted to see this year was exactly the kind of progress we made, and what we want to see in the future.”
Changing the image
It’s no secret the SEC has endured an image problem when it comes to men’s basketball. The national narrative has been that the SEC is a bad conference, and to a degree, that has been hard to argue.
But the recent influx of previously proven coaches — South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Mississippi State’s Ben Howland, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, Alabama’s Avery Johnson and Vanderbilt’s Bryce Drew — has the SEC poised for a brighter future.
Also, take into consideration this study the SEC conducted at the beginning of the season: Of the Power 5 conferences, the SEC entered the year with the fewest returning minutes played when each conference’s roster is taken into account and averaged. There been a great deal of coaching turnover, and the players are mostly young and inexperienced.
Yet the SEC has had some teams step up in big moments. Kentucky was expected to be as good as it has been, but Florida has surprised as a top-15 team. While South Carolina has lost four of its past five games, it has been a consistent third team in the conference with non-conference wins by double digits over NCAA Tournament bubble teams Michigan and Syracuse.
Arkansas has taken flack for what has been seen as a soft non-conference schedule but entered Wednesday fourth in conference play. Tennessee and Vanderbilt are bubble teams thanks to top-10 non-conference schedules and wins over the SEC’s top teams — the Volunteers have a win over Kentucky and Vanderbilt has wins over Florida and South Carolina.
Alabama is 9-5 in conference play and suddenly has itself in the bubble conversation. Georgia is still alive for NCAA Tournament consideration, albeit with an outside chance thanks to wins over Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
Shelby Mast, the head bracketologist at USA Today and BracketWAG.com, said the SEC probably isn’t receiving the national respect it deserves. To start the week, Mast had five SEC teams — Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee — in his NCAA Tournament bracket.
He hasn’t closed the door on four others either.
“A bunch of teams I still have under consideration but not there yet — Vanderbilt, Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia. I still have four that are in play,” Mast said. “Georgia and Ole Miss might be done just because of the lack of opportunity to get another big win. But the other teams, the fact they have that many still alive says a lot. I’ve got five in and four more still alive. That’s nine teams. That’s not too bad.”
To change the conference’s image, the SEC hired Dan Leibovitz, a former basketball coach, as the associate commissioner for men’s basketball and Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner, as a consultant. The conference has delved into analytics to see various ways where the SEC can improve its perception.
One area, which Sankey said will be further strengthened in future seasons, is in non-conference scheduling. The SEC began making its teams schedule tougher out-of-conference teams in 2014. That will continue to occur, Sankey said, while noting the importance of striking a balance in playing tough opponents and winning enough of those games.
But already, this method of scheduling has benefited teams like Vanderbilt and Tennessee, which are on the bubble despite having double-digit losses. Vanderbilt has played only six games against teams ranked outside of the top-100. Tennessee has only played eight of these games.
“We played more top-25 non-conference games than any Power 5 league in the country,” South Carolina’s Martin said of the SEC. “We played more games away from home than any Power 5 team in the country.”
Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew acknowledged the SEC’s perception issue from when he was the head coach at Valparaiso. Living in Indiana, most of the local media he consumed focused on the Big Ten as he didn’t hear too much about the SEC.
Having gone through most of the conference slate following a non-conference schedule that featured potential NCAA Tournament teams Butler, Dayton, Minnesota, Iowa State, Marquette and Middle Tennessee State, Drew said he now believes the SEC hasn’t received the rightful recognition.
“When you go through a whole season, you see a lot of teams and how good they are, how prepared they are,” Drew said. “I look at the Big 12 challenge this year, they’re the (No. 2) RPI league and for us to have a chance to win that challenge and end up tied, it does show how good our teams are.”
Georgia head coach Mark Fox has competed in the SEC since 2009, the year he was hired. Admitting he hadn’t spent much time to compare the SEC to the rest of the country, he said there has been an obvious jump in the conference’s opponents during conference play.
The SEC entered Wednesday with nine teams in the RPI top-75, which ties the Big Ten for second place with only the ACC (11) having more. That means the SEC has more teams in the RPI top-75 than the Big East (eight), the Big 12 (seven) and the Pac-12 (six).
“This league is better than it’s been in a long time,” Fox said. “We ought to be able to get four, five, six teams — I don’t know, six may be a stretch. We ought to get four or five teams in the tournament field easy because the league’s better. I’m just saying compared to previous years. I haven’t done a breakdown to tell you.”
The near-future of SEC basketball
Mast has five SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament at the moment. Fellow bracketologist Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com also has five SEC teams in while ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has four.
There is a real chance the SEC gets five teams in. Six would be somewhat of a surprise but definitely a possibility with what Mast described as a historically weak bubble.
Not too many mid-major teams are expected to receive at-large bids this year. Therefore, a door could be opening for a conference like the SEC thanks to tough scheduling with some quality wins in non-conference play.
“You’ve got other conferences not sending as many teams — the Missouri Valley, the Mountain West will probably only get one team in,” Mast said. “You’re getting from the Power 5 conferences and the Big East, and that affords a little bit more mediocrity. You don’t have to have as many big wins as the committee would normally like.”
While the SEC could get five teams in the dance due to some outside help, Mast believes the conference could soon start seeing five or six teams getting in annually without anyone thinking twice about it.
One thing that will help this effort is recruiting.
In addition to Kentucky’s six top-50 prospects in the basketball recruiting class of 2017, the SEC will add six additional top-50 players next season — Collin Sexton (Alabama), Nick Weatherspoon (Mississippi State), John Petty (Alabama), Daniel Gafford (Arkansas), Rayshaun Hammonds (Georgia) and Chuma Okeke (Auburn).
Those 12 commits give the SEC the most top-50 recruits in the country, more than the Pac-12 (10), ACC (eight), Big 12 (five), Big East (three) and Big Ten (two).
With recruiting improving thanks to the quality of coaches who have been hired, the SEC could be on a bit of an uptick.
“With all the coaches the SEC has, it’s only a matter of time they are considered one of the top-notch conferences again,” Mast said. “They’ve got a bunch of good coaches. Maybe they compare with only the ACC as far as that goes, the quantity of good coaches.”
While improvement has been shown, it’s still evident the conference has some additional ground to make up before before the perception changes outside of the Southeast region.
Sankey believes the first steps are being made for the SEC to gain better national recognition in men’s basketball. But he noted it’s not something he wants to forcibly push if the product can’t back it up.
“Do I think we have the level of respect I want us to have? Well, I want us to earn that respect,” he said.