With several arguments to back the claim, it’s finally time to consider the SEC as a legitimate conference.
For one, the large number of newly hired head coaches are beginning to settle in and are currently enjoying their most successful seasons at their respective school.
After going 45-54 during his first three seasons in Columbia, South Carolina head coach Frank Martin led the Gamecocks to a 25-9 record and NIT appearance last season. This season, South Carolina is 19-4 and has been ranked for the majority of the season.
Rick Barnes is in the midst of his second season at Tennessee and has led a group largely consisting of freshman to a 14-12 record. The Vols currently sit at No. 42 in the RPI, which represents Tennessee’s ability to compete against top-level competition. The young core will surely grow from the number of close losses this season and should be a fun group to keep track of over the next few seasons.
Avery Johnson is also in his second season as an SEC head coach. After leading Alabama to an NIT bid last season, the Crimson Tide currently sit at 14-10 with both of their leading scorers being freshman. With a pair of top-20 recruits coming into Tuscaloosa next season, Johnson’s impact can already be felt.
After back-to-back 20-loss season to start his tenure at Auburn, Bruce Pearl has the Tigers at 16-10 with their top four scorers being freshman. Like Johnson at Alabama, Pearl’s ability to excel in the recruiting game so quickly bodes well for the program’s future.
With a 142-60 career coaching record at the age of 39, Florida head coach Mike White entered his second season fresh off a rough 2015-2016 campaign that saw the Gators go 19-15. This season, White has Florida playing as good as anybody in the country, as the Gators are currently a top-15 team at 20-5, with one of their wins being a 22-point domination of Kentucky.
Need more proof? This doesn’t even include the jobs Georgia’s Mark Fox and Arkansas’ Mike Anderson have done.
Combine these promising coaches with John Calipari and the SEC is neck-and-neck with the other Power Five conference in terms of quality coaching. More importantly, the great coaching is beginning to translate on the court. Not only are the results an indicator, but the individual talent has made the product more appealing.
Entering this season, the SEC was 0-3 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. This season, they finished 5-5. Why does this matter? Up until this year, the Big 12 was expected to dominate the supposed inferior conference. It’s only a matter of time before the SEC not only wins the challenge, but turns it into a highly competitive one year in and year out. Let it be known that Ole Miss and Texas A&M nearly took down Baylor and West Virginia, two Big 12 schools that have lived in the top-10 throughout most of the season.
In terms of RPI, the SEC currently has six squads in the RPI Top 50, the most for the conference since the 2010-2011 season. When compared to the other Power Five conferences, the ACC has eight teams, the Big 12 and Big Ten both have six and the Pac-12 has five. To highlight the increased depth, 10 SEC teams rest inside the RPI Top 70. Last year, the conference had seven.
Typically, the AP Top 25 normally has only one or two spots for the SEC, but this season, the conference has had three teams remain in top-20 contention throughout the season. So, while the depth has improved, so has the core of strong teams. While three teams isn’t much to get excited for, the youth and talent of teams such as Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama could have those programs knocking on the door.
While the conference has closed the gap between itself and the other Power Five conferences, there’s still work to be done before the SEC can make a legitimate case toward being the best conference in the country. But for now, this season serves as a positive sign moving forward.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image Ben Proffitt