College Football began its’ hibernation this week, but the good news is College Basketball returns, and it takes center stage until April. As we brought in the New Year, teams finished non-conference games, and started their conference schedules. The SEC, in particular, has already gotten into the conference swing of things. When we talk about College Basketball, the SEC rarely gets notoriety (other than Kentucky); in fact, most would consider the SEC average (if that) when it comes to basketball. I asked myself the question, “How does the SEC ACTUALLY compare to other conferences?” Then I thought, “Well, let’s analyze College Basketball to see how they really stack up.” Immediately, I thought up three phases of College basketball to compare; Head-to-Head non-conference records (against ranked opponents), style of play, and personnel. These criteria should give us a good picture of the conference hierarchy.
To see if you’re better than someone, what do you do? Play them right? Yes. Exactly. So, if we examine the SEC’s non-conference schedule, then we will know a little more about the SEC. Instead of listing all the teams the SEC played that were non-conference, I took note solely of ranked teams. To be fair though, the SEC, for the most part, only played non-conference teams that were ranked, and if they weren’t ranked, they had a reputation for success in the tournament. Notable ranked teams the SEC played so far; Kansas (3 times), VCU, Butler, Iowa State (3 times), Gonzaga, and Wichita State. Out of all the ranked games, the SEC went 8-10, and the SEC East went 6-7. At first glance, 8-10 looks decent, and could be consider good, but no, Kentucky had 4 of those wins (4-0 in fact). Assuming Kentucky is an outlier for the SEC, which it is, especially this year, the non-conference record looks pitiful. The only SEC wins against ranked teams other than Kentucky was Tennessee (Beat #15 Butler) and South Carolina (Beat #9 Iowa State). However, in the Big 12 challenge, the SEC went 4-6, and had multiple teams win. What does all this mean? It means top to bottom, the SEC isn’t near the upper echelon of college basketball conferences, but held its own against a solid Big 12 conference, in my opinion.
Now that we have examined the head-to-head battles, we can peer into the style of play the SEC demands. When I think style of play, I jump to offensive and defensive scheme, coupled with tempo. Let’s look at other conferences, make a generalization about Division I basketball, and compare that generalization to the SEC. Elsewhere in College Basketball, offenses are full of firepower. Teams are littered with great shooting, as well as big men who can score. Teams like Kansas, Texas, and Wisconsin (just to provide examples) have dominating big men. As far as shooters go, teams like Louisville, Duke, and North Carolina (typically) pride themselves in recruiting (shooters) the best. Games in other conferences tend to be higher scoring than the SEC. If there is one aspect of basketball the SEC lacks, it is the ability to score points. SEC teams usually don’t score over 80 points, in fact, most of the time, they have trouble-reaching 70, or sometimes even 60 consistently. I watched a game last week where the teams finished in the 30’s and 40’s. Some might say low scores indicate lackluster recruits, however, it has to do with style of play. The SEC puts more emphasis on defense than offense. A powerhouse like Kentucky is the best in the conference when it comes to defense, and sometimes, too good. The Wildcats have their own problems with scoring because they are so focused on defense. The Wildcats heavy defensive scheme can be extrapolated to say something about the conference as a whole. The SEC plays great defense, but not good enough offense to compete with other conferences from a style of play point of view. Kentucky can compete at the top level, but as a conference, the SEC cannot. Again, the SEC just doesn’t stack up in comparison to the other conferences style of play. My goal is not to say the SEC is terrible, but that College Basketball today has become a bit too up-tempo for SEC teams. Let the record show that College Basketball isn’t fast enough in my opinion. So, for the SEC to be that slow is significant. One way for the SEC to combat this is to create more shots for shooters. Another would be an up-tempo, aggressive scheme.
Picture yourself as an athletic director, and tell me which priorities would be at the top of the board for you. If you asked me, I would say great head coach, great staff, and recruit, recruit, and then recruit some more. What makes conferences like the ACC, Big 10, Big 12 and Big East so relevant? Coaches like Coach K, Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino, Bill Self, their staff, and great recruiting do. The next question…how close is the SEC to the rest of basketball with respect to these qualifications? As far as recruiting goes, the SEC is above average. Great shot blockers, point guards, and defenders come out of the SEC, but not a bunch of scorers do. The shooters want to go play for Duke instead of Arkansas, and that makes sense, because their play is a level above the average SEC team. Competition breeds success, and conferences like the Big 12, Big 10, Big East, etc. have a lot of competition. Comparably, the SEC is fairly bland when it comes down to it. Kentucky is always at the top, with Florida (sometimes) and everybody else behind that. When it comes to head coaches and staff, the SEC qualifies as above average again. John Calipari (Kentucky), Billy Donovan (Florida), Bruce Pearl (Auburn), Kevin Stallings (Vanderbilt), just to name a few, are the most prominent coaches in the SEC. SEC coaches, as a whole, are basically equal with the coaching staffs of other conferences. So, while the SEC can compete from a personnel standpoint, it can’t with respect to style of play or head-to-head.
The SEC doesn’t have a great non-conference record against ranked teams, runs a slow, defensive-minded game, and has above average coaching. Because the SEC is weaker in two categories, the only thing left to do is make it official. It’s true what they say; the SEC IS NOT as good as the other conferences. It’s important to note this recipe is only valid for the current season, but does say a lot about College Basketball. This might outrage SEC fans, but you can’t be the best at every sport. The recipe for SEC success is simple though. Hire better coaches, win important recruits, and then run a more aggressive style of play. Do those things and the gap might close a little bit. Until the SEC steps up its game, look for them to be on the outside looking in when it comes to College Basketball.