October means teams will soon begin practicing with college basketball season tipping off next month. So, which questions need answering? Today, we look at whether the Southeastern Conference can rise back to national relevance this season.
From 2000 to 2008, the SEC sent 50 percent of its teams to the NCAA tournament seven times in nine seasons. When it didn’t send six of its then-12 members, it sent five. That was considered slippage back then.
It was a conference deep enough and talented enough that Florida, despite not even winning the SEC East in 2006, went on to claim its first national title that year as a No. 3 seed.
That might seem like the golden era that silver-haired fans discuss when they remember the SEC's good times. Aside from Kentucky and Florida, there haven’t been many moments sweet enough for the conference to savor over the past seven seasons. Two of the past three seasons -- despite expanding to a 14-team league -- the SEC had only three representatives in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe the league’s fans were too busy to notice while awaiting updates on two-deep rosters from spring football practices. Basketball has long played second fiddle to football on every campus in the league not located in Lexington, Kentucky, but SEC hoops might be finding its rhythm again.
It started with essentially a mandate from former SEC commissioner Mike Slive back in 2013. Slive urged the league’s athletic directors to make basketball a priority. To prove it wasn’t just lip service, he created a position of associate commissioner for men’s basketball and hired Mark Whitworth in that role.
It is the only sport in which the league office has a specific administrator devoted exclusively to handling hoops. Slive also hired Greg Shaheen, a former head of the NCAA tournament, to serve as a scheduling consultant so league teams could bolster their résumés.
Athletic budgets have opened up for basketball. Facilities in the league (again, with apologies to Kentucky and its state-of-art practice facility and Wildcat lodge) have been dreadfully outdated, but that’s changing too. Front and center is the $95 million Pavilion at Ole Miss set to open in January.
Since Auburn opened its basketball arena in 2010, LSU, Georgia and Florida have each spent millions on building new facilities or renovating their old ones.
Slive’s basketball push should start showing progress this season, and it could be most noticeable on the sidelines. Coaches are still the stars of college basketball, and the four new hires in the offseason made a collective splash for the league:
Alabama proved it was serious about trying to upgrade its program by signing Avery Johnson to a deal worth nearly $3 million annually. Although he has never coached in college, being a former NBA Coach of the Year carries weight on the recruiting trail.
Tennessee created its own mess -- first, by the way it allowed Cuonzo Martin to be jettisoned off and then hiring Donnie Tyndall -- but it seems to have corrected its course by scooping up Rick Barnes from Texas. In 17 years with the Longhorns, Barnes missed the NCAA tournament only once.
Mississippi State jumped at the chance to bring in Ben Howland. He joins Kentucky's John Calipari as the only coach in the league with multiple Final Four appearances.
Florida’s Mike White seems to be the perfect replacement for Billy Donovan both in tempo and temperament. If White's time at Louisiana Tech is any indication, the Gators won't suffer a drop off during their coaching transition.
And don’t forget Bruce Pearl, who is just in his second season at Auburn. With a strong collection of head coaches, it’s truly just a matter of time before the league returns to its heyday. The reason why it could be this season is because of the recruits they’ve brought on board. By the way, it’s not just Kentucky that will benefit from an instant boost of freshmen.
Five of RecruitingNation's top 20 classes for 2015 are in the SEC. Of course, we take for granted that the Wildcats (No. 2) will have an elite class every year, but LSU (No. 3) and Texas A&M (No. 6) elbowed their way into the top 10. White was able to maintain a strong class for Florida (No. 11), and Howland’s signing of the nation’s top shooting guard, Malik Newman, solidified Mississippi State at No. 20.
Four more SEC schools ranked from 21-40 including South Carolina, thanks to its signing of point guard P.J. Dozier, the No. 19 overall recruit and the No. 3 point guard in the class.
Kentucky has simply rotated the league’s Freshman of the Year trophy from one player to the next in its locker room. (Mississippi's Terrico White in 2009 was the last player not from Kentucky to win the award.) That might not be the case this season.
LSU’s Ben Simmons, the No. 1 player in the ESPN 100, will likely have a major say in not just the league’s award but some national honors as well. The Tigers anticipated his arrival by launching an unprecedented marketing campaign to sell season tickets.
The talent spread throughout the league might finally lead to a third school loosening Kentucky and Florida’s footing atop the regular-season standings. The last time the Wildcats or Gators did not have the best record in the conference was in 2009 when LSU won the regular-season title.
Although Kentucky will again be favored, a number of schools are poised to challenge them, starting with Vanderbilt. The Commodores’ 7-foot center, Damian Jones, is considered by many to be a potential top-five NBA draft pick in 2016.
Basketball in the SEC will never be football. But you know what? It doesn’t have to be in order to place itself among the best again.