Longtime SEC writer Ron Higgins put it best in his column in April.
“The SEC finally gets serious about basketball,” Higgins wrote.
Long the whipping boy of the power-five conferences when it came to men’s hoops, the SEC is coming off its best season since 2011. The league put five teams into the NCAA tournament (with Kentucky reaching the Final Four) and another three in the NIT, and its nationwide reputation rose.
In past years, the league would regress. The 2011 season was followed by three years when, at most, four teams reached the NCAAs, and 2011 was the only time from 2009-14 when five teams went. Outside of the flag-bearing Wildcats, the SEC was struggling with consistency – even Florida, back-to-back national champs in 2006 and 2007, had a two-year dry spell before it reached the NCAA tournament again, and that year was one-and-done.
Coming off a terrific 2015, would it happen again? Would the SEC, having tasted success, slide back into mediocrity?
No one will know until there’s a ribbon tied on the 2015-16 season, but the offseason has been profitable.
Four new coaches – and dynamic reputations – have been added to the league. Tennessee, seeking the biggest name it could find after Donnie Tyndall was jettisoned because of past NCAA violations, landed Rick Barnes. Barnes was fired from Texas after going to 16 NCAA tournaments in 17 years, but if he does that with the Vols, athletics director Dave Hart said he’ll be dancing in the streets.
Mississippi State decided to pull the plug on the Rick Ray experiment after three seasons. Ben Howland, who led UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours, was hired barely two days after Ray was let go, giving the SEC (for a brief time) four coaches who had taken their teams to Final Fours and two more who had won championships in Division II.
Alabama followed Anthony Grant with Avery Johnson, an NBA veteran who never has coached in college but who brought instant recognition. Seth Davis tweeted, “Way to step it up” after the Johnson hire, and Higgins lauded the Crimson Tide’s approach – it not only found a head man skilled in basketball X’s and O’s, but someone who has already embraced the constant off-the-court activities.
“It’s about convincing a fan base to hop aboard, it’s a 24-hour-a-day selling job through traditional and social media,” Higgins wrote.
Those three hires were plenty to keep the SEC enticing for next season, especially with entrenched personalities such as Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Kentucky’s John Calipari and South Carolina’s Frank Martin. Then a major hurdle arose.
Billy Donovan, the longest-tenured coach in the league and the man who turned Florida into a juggernaut, decided to try the NBA. His departure to Oklahoma City left the Gators with no shortage of candidates, and while athletics director Jeremy Foley might not have picked the guy with the best resume, the almost-immediate hire let everyone know he had his choice in mind as soon as Donovan told him he was leaving.
Michael White has yet to make the NCAA tournament, but he won 101 of 141 games at Louisiana Tech and he won the past three Conference USA regular-season championships. A former player and assistant coach at Ole Miss who was born in Florida, White, considered a rising star, accepted Foley’s invitation to keep the Gators where they’ve become accustomed.
“I better watch out,” kidded Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. “This kid’s good. He’s my AD’s son.”
White’s father Kevin is Duke’s athletics director and, despite his absence of NCAA berths, the hire reminded many of how Foley took a chance on an unknown youngster at Marshall in 1996. That kid, Donovan, went to eight Elite Eights and four Final Fours. While it hurts to lose Donovan’s impact, Florida and the SEC feel the hurdle raised by his departure has been cleared with room to spare by White’s hire.
“Some people would say your job just got harder,” Pearl told al.com. “Which makes me even more glad that I’m here now because if you don’t have a strong staff in this league, you’re going to get exposed even more.”
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The SEC hired four new coaches this offseason.
You heard of him at: Texas, where he went to 16 NCAA tournaments in 17 years, and before that, Clemson.
You heard of him at: UCLA, where he coached Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love and made three straight Final Fours.
You heard of him at: The NBA, where he played and coached for 23 years. He was San Antonio’s point guard in its 1999 championship season.
You heard of him at: Louisiana Tech, where he won three straight regular-season titles. He played and was an assistant coach at Ole Miss.