It wasn’t that long ago that basketball in the SEC had seemingly hit rock bottom. Things had gotten so bad that SEC Commissioner Mike Slive appointed Associate Commissioner Mark Whitworth to work exclusively improving the national perception, and reality, of SEC men’s basketball.
Whitworth has worked with coaches and athletic directors to try to improve the league’s efforts on the hardwood. This year, the conference put five teams in the NCAA Tournament field and easily could have had a sixth if not for a late collapse by the Texas A&M Aggies.
SEC coaches and ADs now understand that scheduling is crucial, especially playing Power Five teams on the road. The efforts by the SEC have shown up most notably with the Ole Miss Rebels and the Georgia Bulldogs, who have improved their non-conference slates enough to make the field of 68 this season.
And while five programs got into this year’s NCAA Tournament field, others are taking notes and making changes to head in that direction. The Mississippi State Bulldogs fired Rick Ray after just two seasons, replacing him with Ben Howland, who took the UCLA Bruins to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08.
Then Tuesday, the Tennessee Volunteers announced that they have hired Rick Barnes as their new coach, replacing Donnie Tyndall. Barnes took the Texas Longhorns to the Final Four in 2003, but was fired at Texas after the 2015 season, despite making the NCAA field in 16 of 17 seasons in Austin.
The addition of Barnes and Howland mean that there are now four active SEC coaches who have been to the Final Four in their careers (Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators and John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats are the other two). Those four coaches have combined for 12 Final Four appearances and three championships.
Things could get even more interesting if the Alabama Crimson Tide land Gregg Marshall from Wichita State, another coach who has taken his team to the Final Four.
Make no mistake, the SEC is serious about basketball. And because of that, the quality of play in the conference has improved each season, and the quality of coaching will see that the trend continues.