SEC Basketball Has Come a Long Way, It’s Fun Again

Lyn Scarbrough

January 20, 2022 at 4:31 pm.

Turn the calendar back eight years, just eight short years.

It’s the 2013-2014 Southeastern Conference athletic season and the country’s best football conference was doing just fine on the gridiron.

In the most recent eight seasons (2005-2012), SEC football teams had captured all but one national championship, including seven in a row.

Alabama had three. Florida had two. LSU had one and lost another one to Alabama in the championship game. Auburn also had one and most recently had come just 13 seconds short of claiming its second title in four years.

Just like today, with Georgia winning the 2021 national championship, football in the Southeastern Conference was doing just fine.

Men’s basketball … not so much. In fact, it had been some time since things had been this bad on the hardcourt. Football didn’t have to worry about a lot of competition.

Just a few years earlier, Florida was on top of the college basketball world. The Gators were champions in 2006 and 2007, the first team with back-to-back national titles since Duke did it 15 seasons earlier.

Kentucky had won the title the previous year, defeating Kansas for the 2012 championship. But that was it. No other SEC team had played in the championship game since 2000.

For the 2013 season, only three SEC teams earned NCAA Tournament bids.


And Kentucky was not one of those.

The Wildcats, the defending national champions, winners of 38 games to set the all-time program single-season victory record the year before, lost 12 regular season games, fell to Vanderbilt in the second round of the SEC Tournament, then lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament.

The NIT!!

Robert Morris!!

In the past five seasons, the conference had averaged just 3.8 teams per season in the NCAA Tournament. A lot of people felt that this was embarrassing, unacceptable. One of those was SEC Commissioner Mike Slive.

The commissioner, one of the most influential people in all of college athletics, wasn’t shy about his feelings.

“We had a bad year,” he said bluntly at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., referring to the just concluded 2013 basketball season.

Non-conference schedules needed to be strengthened. Coaching talent needed to be upgraded. Facilities needed to be restored and programs had to be better promoted.

His message was clear. Basketball had to become a bigger priority and it had to happen immediately.

“Our commissioner was pretty straightforward that we need to, and could, do better in basketball,” Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams said at the time. “We as ADs had to come together and say, ‘Yeah, we could and we should, so let’s all sort of put our egos aside for the betterment of trying to make basketball better.”

Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin, currently the Florida AD, acknowledged some of the league’s shortcomings.

“I think it’s hiring the right coach and for whatever reason in men’s basketball we haven’t been as successful doing that as we have in our other sports,” he said.

Now, come back eight years to the 2021-22 season. Where does SEC basketball stand today? You have to think that Commissioner Slive would be proud if he was still with us.

Non-conference schedules are stronger than ever. It’s no longer just Kentucky that faces the nation’s premiere programs early. Every conference team plays in holiday tournaments in November and December, most with fields including college basketball blue blood teams. And, more nationally prominent teams play against the SEC in non-tournament games.

Remember the 1980s, SEC coaching glory days with Joe B. Hall and Eddie Sutton at Kentucky, Wimp Sanderson and Sonny Smith, Dale Brown, C.M. Newton, Norm Sloan, Hugh Durham and Don DeVoe?

Well, the feel is back like the 1980s again. Head coaches for SEC teams for 2021-2022 … John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Rick Barnes, Eric Musselman, Ben Howland, Kuonzo Martin, Kermit Davis, Frank Martin, Nate Oates, Buzz Williams, Jerry Stackhouse.

From top to bottom, SEC coaching has never been better.

Facilities have giant scoreboards and video screens and reverberating sound systems, enhanced by expanded marketing programs. Designed to make fans feel on top of the action, there’s not a bad seat in the house.

SEC basketball is fun again!

Nowhere has that been more evident than at Auburn, the most recent SEC team to play in the NCAA Final Four.

The Auburn Arena, seating a little over 9,100 is packed for every game with standing room only space always filled behind and completely around third level seating. And students are given floor level seats, side court and end zone, joined by the pep band. They call it “The Jungle” … and it makes a difference.

“Every college program serious about their program should take a page out of Auburn men’s basketball and give the students as much real estate court side as possible,” said ESPN analyst Peter Burns. “The Tigers have built one of the best home court advantages in all of college basketball.”

Auburn defeated Georgia on Wednesday night, 83-60, for its 14th consecutive win, to remain undefeated in SEC play (17-1, 6-0). Kentucky (15-3, 5-1) gave Texas A&M its first conference loss that same night, 74-68, and pulled into second place behind the Tigers. Those teams meet on Saturday at Auburn Arena with the conference lead and national ranking on the line.

The Tigers and Wildcats aren’t the only league teams off to a good start. At least seven other SEC teams have a legit shot at making the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament. The days of just three SEC teams getting a tournament bid is a thing of the past and a return to that level isn’t likely any time soon.

After the loss to Kentucky, the Aggies (15-3, 4-1) are still the surprise team in the conference so far, but with tougher SEC games upcoming. Mississippi State only has two SEC losses, and LSU, which got off to a fast start against a difficult early conference schedule, has a 15-3 mark despite back-to-back league losses. Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas each have three early SEC losses, but they all have been ranked in the Top 25 this season. The Crimson Tide defeated Gonzaga in Seattle, Wash., when the Zags were ranked No. 1.

But Gonzaga is back at No. 1 this week, four points ahead of No. 2 Auburn in the Associated Press poll. Kentucky is No. 12 in that ranking, the second highest SEC team. LSU is No. 13 and Tennessee is No. 24. Those Tigers and the Volunteers play each other in Knoxville on Saturday evening.

The Tigers and Wildcats will tip off at Auburn Arena at noon Central Time with another packed house and the boisterous “Jungle” doing its part. It’s the CBS Sports national game and countless fans around the country will be in front of their screens.

So football, you’re still on top, but you’ll need to move over a little.

Those three-bid seasons are gone.

SEC basketball is fun again!