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The SEC has basketball talent. When does the league’s reputation change?

The SEC has been turning out pro basketball players in droves, but the reputation of the league has stagnated. When does the league start turning around it’s reputation?

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Basketball has undoubtedly been down over the last few years. KenPom conference ratings (ranking conferences based upon the average Adjusted Offense and Defensive numbers) had the SEC just sixth in 2016, fifth in 2015, sixth again in 2014 and seventh in 2013.

What’s weird about the level of play, though, is the overall talent level is still good. Perhaps it’s just the culture of Kentucky, where John Calipari turns out a few lottery picks a year, but the SEC conference has been as strong, if not stronger at sending players to the NBA than just about any other conference. Since 2005 only the ACC has had more players drafted into the NBA than the SEC. See, I have a chart to prove it:

The SEC has had 94 players drafted since 2005
Players drafted by conference

So why is the SEC so far behind the other conferences when the talent has been so rich for so long? And are we reaching a point where the SEC might be turning things around?

The slow decline

In the 2005-06 season, KenPom ranked the SEC the top overall conference. Do you remember 2006? Tubby Smith was coaching Kentucky to an eight seed in the NCAA tournament and Bruce Pearl was coaching Tennessee to a two seed. Florida was the national champion, and the conference sent six of 12 teams to the NCAA Tournament.

The league has since expanded to 14 teams and sent just three schools to the NCAA tournament last March. When you look at the longevity of the coaches in the league in 2006 and compare it to today... sheesh.

2006 Coach Years School Years 2016 Coach Number of Changes
Mark Gottfried 8 Alabama 1 Avery Johnson 2
Stan Heath 4 Arkansas 5 Mike Anderson 2
Jeff Lebo 2 Auburn 2 Bruce Pearl 2
Billy Donovan 10 Florida 1 Mike White 1
Dennis Felton 3 Georgia 7 Mark Fox 1
Tubby Smith 9 Kentucky 6 John Calipari 2
John Brady 9 LSU 4 Johnny Jones 2
Rick Stansbury 8 Mississippi State 1 Ben Howland 2
Quin Snyder 7 Missouri* 2 Kim Anderson 3
Rod Barnes 8 Ole Miss 10 Andy Kennedy 1
Dave Odom 5 South Carolina 3 Frank Martin 2
Bruce Pearl 1 Tennessee 1 Rick Barnes 3
Billy Gillespie 2 Texas A&M 5 Billy Kennedy 2
Kevin Stallings 7 Vanderbilt 0 Bryce Drew 1
6.16 avg 3.64 avg 26 total

Stability in the league has been a problem. There’s been 100% coaching turnover since 2006, and many of those seats have been flipped more than once. In fact, there have been 26 coaching changes amongst the 14 teams.

(If you wondering about the math, I excluded Missouri and Texas A&M for the 2006 average, and included them in the 2016 average. The average coaching experience in 2016 was almost half of what it was in the 2006 season.)

When Missouri moved to the SEC, many imagined the Tigers would struggle in football but excel in basketball, yet the Tigers have had three coaching changes, matched only by the dysfunction at Tennessee over the last few years (Cuonzo Martin left, and the Vols hired Donnie Tyndall, which... turned out poorly).

While the talent in the league was high, the stability inside the league was all over the place. In 2006, Ole Miss fired Rod Barnes and hired Andy Kennedy — he’s the only coach to stick with his program since. Is there any surprise about Ole Miss winning 20 games eight of the last 10 seasons? There shouldn’t be.

Looking early at the SEC this season, most people seem to be predicting Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia to be pretty good. What those teams have in common is a head coach who has been at his school longer than anyone else in the league (minus Ole Miss — the Rebels are facing a high amount of turnover from last years roster).

This isn’t a blind advocation for stability in the head coaching seat. Many programs were forced to make a change. Missouri had two coaches leave; Tennessee lost Martin to Cal, and Tyndall violated NCAA rules. When a coach leaves, you have to find a new coach.

But what about self inflicted wounds? Too many programs have cratered themselves with poor hires and bad decision making.

Underachieving programs

We mentioned Missouri’s intro to the league and the expectations of the Tigers within the SEC. Mizzou turning into one of the league’s worst programs after making five straight NCAA tournaments is indicative of the problems the SEC has had in keeping its traditionally powerful programs at the top of the heap.

Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Alabama have all had their moments being towards the top of college basketball and all of them have been inconsistent to say the least. Texas A&M has had a recent run, but if you polled college basketball fans and writers I think most would have expected Missouri to be more impactful on the basketball side. Really, if not for John Calipari and Kentucky, the traditionally strong programs in the SEC would have pretty much gone o-fer.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kentucky vs Indiana Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The “strength” of the league then came down to Billy Donovan and the rock solid program he built at Florida for many of those years. After LSU fired Jon Brady, the Tigers struggled to find consistency and have been consistently inconsistent under Johnny Jones.

And then there’s the weird post-Nolan Richardson situation at Arkansas, which still hasn’t stabilized despite a really good season a year ago. Mississippi State forced Rick Stansbury out, Alabama forced Mark Gottfried (and Anthony Grant) out, Sometimes you make a bad hire and you need to move on, but sometimes guys have success, then hit a small lull and the school moves on when maybe it didn’t need to. Gottfried missed three straight NCAA tournaments (after a run of five straight) and got fired; since, he’s moved to NC State and gone to four tournaments in five years.

Georgia v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The bottom falls out

The top of the SEC has been competitive year after year. Kentucky has been as good as any school over the course of the John Calipari era and has multiple Final Fours and a championship. If we’re looking solely at 2006 vs. 2016, the problem has been at the bottom of the league.

In 2006, the worst SEC team was Ole Miss. The Rebels were a sad 142 in the KenPom rankings. There were 3 other teams in the 100s, Mississippi State (102), Auburn (108) and South Carolina (109). But the next worst team was Alabama at 50, and there were four teams in the top 20.

By 2011 there were two teams in the 200’s (LSU at 244 and Auburn at 226) and three more in the 100’s. In 2016, by contrast, the worst SEC team was Auburn at 213. The Tigers were joined by Missouri (182) and Tennessee (115) in the triple digit rankings.

In 2006, eight of 12 teams were higher than 50th. 10 years later, there were just four of 14.

The SEC desperately needs to raise its floor. The Big 12 is a great basketball league because the basement of the league is still pretty good. TCU has been the worst team in the Big 12 in three of the four years they’ve been in the league, and last year the Horned Frogs were ranked 145th in KenPom. That’s 80 spots ahead of Auburn.

You don’t have to have 14 NCAA teams, but you need the basement dwellers to be competitive with the rest of the league on a nightly basis, and in the decline of the league this just hasn’t happened. Missouri, Auburn and Tennessee all need to jump up, and LSU, Mississippi State, Alabama and Arkansas need a boost as well.

The good news is, I think it will happen.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Georgia vs Kentucky Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The talent is there

In the last NBA draft, six SEC players were taken. In 2006 it was four players. The most was 12 in 2012, thanks in large part to Kentucky sending its entire starting five to the league. Where the league has struggled is to turn the depth of draft picks into NCAA appearances.

The biggest disappointment happened this past year, when the LSU Tigers and Ben Simmons, the top pick in the NBA draft, missed the post-season altogether.

Players to watch this season: Bam Adebayo - Fr (Kentucky), Keyvaughn Allen - So (Florida), Antonio Blakeney - So (LSU), Isaiah Briscoe - So (Kentucky), Tyler Davis - So (Texas A&M), PJ Dozier - So (South Carolina), T.J. Dunans - Sr (Auburn), John Egbunu - Sr (Florida), Matthew Fisher-Davis - Jr (Vanderbilt), De’Aron Fox - Fr (Kentucky), JJ Frazier - Sr (Georgia), Wenyen Gabriel - Fr (Kentucky), Schnider Herard - Fr (Mississippi State), Mustapha Heron - Fr (Auburn), DJ Hogg - So (Texas A&M), Moses Kingsley - Sr (Arkansas), Yante Maten - Jr (Georgia), Malik Monk - Fr (Kentucky), Danjel Purifoy - Fr (Auburn), Devin Robinson - Jr (Florida), Sindarius Thornwell - Sr (South Carolina), Craig Victor - Jr (LSU), Quindarry Weatherspoon - So (MSU),

Looking at this season you can see NBA-level talent up and down several rosters in the SEC. Players on Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, LSU and (yes) Kentucky all have players on their roster with pro potential. There are six 5-star incoming freshmen, all with one-and-done potential, and nineteen 4-star kids.

Couple the incoming talent with the existing 15 or so players who expect to compete for all-SEC, and you have a league that has built up good depth. Half of the league has players who could break out.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Georgia vs Mississippi State Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Path Forward

There has been a real effort by the league and the member schools to upgrade their head coaching efforts and scheduling. The last few years have shown this by going after veteran coaches with experience and wins behind them. Auburn hired Bruce Pearl, Mississippi State hired Ben Howland, Alabama hired Avery Johnson, Tennessee hired Rick Barnes, and South Carolina hired Frank Martin, all veteran experienced coaches who won at different levels. Florida hired Mike White, Vanderbilt hired Bryce Drew, and Missouri hired Kim Anderson, all of whom come with question marks when it comes to winning at the Power 5 level.

As long as Kentucky continues to be Kentucky, the experienced coaches currently toiling towards the bottom of the league should be able to get those programs back and rolling. It won’t be a one- or two-year fix in some cases, as is the case at Auburn — the Tigers might just now be looking at a season they could break through, but they might still be a season away from being a real threat.

Tennessee has good young talent, though it may take them a few years to get back to where they were not long ago. LSU’s question marks in the head coaching seat haven’t prevented them from bringing in top talent, and the Tigers still have high level guys.

Mississippi State may take a small step back after losing so much experience, but the Bulldogs have a load of very good young players. Alabama looks to rise.

Even for the teams who have struggled in recent years, there is hope. There’s reason to believe all 14 teams could finish within the top 125 of KenPom.

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting a series of previews of the SEC and provide a pretty thorough answer as to why I think the league is on the way up. How much the league has improved will hinge on a few ball clubs, and I would point to Missouri, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas as the bellwethers for how the league performs overall.