By Kyle Yager, Sports Editor —
Throughout the sports landscape, the south, and the Southeastern conference, is known for one sport and one sport only: Football.
From a league perspective, and a success perspective, that’s beginning to change.
For many years now, SEC college basketball has really only had two teams that compete for a championship on an annual basis. Those two teams are Kentucky and Florida.
Historically, you can only even really say Kentucky, as Florida basketball finally got a pulse with the Billy Donovan era.
Throughout the second half of the 21st century, SEC schools have made a switch. Schools have started investing in college basketball, league wide. More time, resources, money, and commitment has been allocated for, or simply put into, cultivating SEC basketball programs, and schools are starting to see the fruits of their labor.
The days of big bad Kentucky dominating the conference are over. It’s a new era of basketball in the SEC.
With the regular season drawing to a close, the SEC regular season champion has been crowned, and it’s not who anyone expected.
The Auburn Tigers and the Tennessee Vols became co-SEC regular season champions this past weekend. For a little perspective, these schools were projected to finish ninth and 13th in the conference, respectively.
Regardless of the preseason projections, these teams didn’t just come out of the dark. There’s a pattern in the way those schools have progressed their programs.
It starts at the top. Hiring the right coach is unparralled in having success in college baskeball.
Auburn hired Bruce Pearl a few years ago. Pearl is clearly a basketball wiz, and took Tennessee to unprecedented levels of success, but questions of behind the scenes activity brought his time as a Vol to an abrupt. Auburn got a steal.
Tennessee also recently hired former Texas head coach Rick Barnes. Barnes is a proven coach, and had success in his Texas career, including coaching Kevin Durant. His success at Tennessee, nonetheless, has been surprisingly rapid.
These aren’t the only schools who have revamped their programs. Alabama’s hiring of Avery Johnson a few years back showed a newfound commitment to something besides football for the Tide. He has Alabama home games actually drawing student attendance, and freshman prodigy Collin Sexton has Tide fans caring about basketball. Still, Alabama may have work to do in the SEC tournament if they want to make the big dance.
Because of this newfound commitment to basketball, the SEC looks to have more teams in the tournament then ever in its history.
Current projections have the SEC securing as many as nine bids in the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky, Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee are shoe ins. Arkansas and Texas A&M seem pretty much locked in as well. Missouri seems likely, and Alabama is projected as a ten seed. Mississippi State also has a chance, but they’ll have work to do in the SEC tournament to really prove themselves.
All in all, the SEC looks set to have a minimum of seven schools represent them in the tournament.
This is a testament to the depth of the league this year.
As schools gear up to make a deep tournament run, it’s worth noting that this is the best shape the SEC has been in in a long time, and possibly ever.
With so many bids, it’s likely we’ll see one or two SEC teams make deep runs in the tournament. There’s potential for another SEC heavy Final Four. And, hopefully, success for SEC basketball, like
football, will persist