The Southeastern Conference is becoming a basketball league.
OK, we’re still years or decades or even centuries away from the average SEC fan caring more about basketball than football. But one trait that SEC fans share with all other sports fans is that we all love a winner.
And from the looks of the SEC at this moment, there is every reason to believe that SEC basketball is on the verge of overtaking its football brethren in championships won and the number of teams that are going to be in championship contention.
Before you conclude that I’ve joined Kyrie Irving’s “earth is flat” crowd or that I believe all those clues that point to the death of Paul McCartney, hear me out. I think you will agree there is indeed a new world order in the SEC.
Let’s take a look at the most important factor in determining long-term success, the men who are in charge of each program.
Here is how the 14 SEC football coaches break down.
Two National Championship winners. Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher (at Florida State). Two coaches who have proven they can get their teams to the precipice of a national championship but haven’t reached the summit. Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn (who won a national championship as an Auburn assistant and took the Tigers to within six seconds of winning the national championship game as a head coach).
One highly respected coach who experts believe has everything it takes to get to the top. Florida’s Dan Mullen. One coach who has the talent to get there but has never threatened to win a championship. LSU’s Ed Orgeron.
Eight other coaches have various levels of respect in the industry, but have done nothing so far to indicate they will ever reach the top of the profession. Those are South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, Missouri’s Barry Odom, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, Arkansas’ Chad Morris, Ole Miss’ Matt Luke and Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt. It’s too soon to make any legitimate assessment about Pruitt, but so far he hasn’t done enough to be elevated from this category.
That’s some pretty solid success. But now take a look at their more accomplished counterparts on the basketball side.
One national championship coach. Kentucky’s John Calipari.
Five more coaches who have taken a team to the Final Four. Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes (at Texas), South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Georgia’s Tom Crean (at Marquette) and Mississippi State’s Ben Howland (at UCLA).
The reigning SEC champion. LSU’s Will Wade, who somehow is still employed by LSU despite evidence that his success was a result of shady recruiting practices.
The reigning SEC Coach of the Year after his first season in the league. Ole Miss’ Kermit Davis.
A two-time major conference champion. Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams, who comes to the SEC after a Sweet 16 appearance at Virginia Tech.
A budding star. Florida’s Mike White, who has a 5-3 record in the NCAA Tournament.
A three-time conference champion. Alabama’s Nate Oats. In four seasons as a head coach, Oats has had only one year in which he didn’t win a conference championship and reach the NCAA Tournament. He also won two NCAA Tournament games at Buffalo, which is not exactly a basketball hotbed.
Another three-time conference champion. New Arkansas coach Eric Musselman.
A one-time conference champion. Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin.
And a big-name former player without much of a coaching resume. Vanderbilt’s Jerry Stackhouse.
That’s four football coaches who have reached the final four, compared to six coaches in basketball. Only Saban is a multi-year playoff participant among the football coaches.
In basketball, Calipari and Howland have both been to multiple Finals Fours.
Looking ahead, how many of the 14 SEC schools are closer to making the College Football Playoff (the final four teams) versus their chances of making the basketball Final Four? The answer is less than a third.
The schools in a stronger position to make the football playoff are Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia. Only Alabama and Georgia are on this list without debate.
The schools better positioned to make a basketball championship run than a football title run are Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Only Auburn and Florida might belong in the football group.
So, 10 out of 14 SEC schools are better positioned for major success in basketball than football. That doesn’t make the SEC a basketball league just yet, but fans love a winner. The SEC is destined for much more winning on the basketball court in the near future.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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