How do you measure the strength of this league?
For the SEC, the national answer has long been associated with what kind of year Kentucky is having first. I’m not sure how much oomph Florida still gets for its back-to-back national championships, now 15+ years ago, but the Gators have carried the banner at times as well.
2006 is a number that matches up well for both the league and Tennessee, with Bruce Pearl’s arrival carrying us into an era of greater success. And since that time, the SEC has had eight teams finish in the KenPom Top 5. That’s always met with varying ultimate success in a single elimination sport. But Florida and Kentucky traded off opportunities at the top: the Gators obviously had Top 5 KenPom teams in 2006 and 2007. John Calipari’s first Kentucky team with John Wall and Demarcus Cousins finished fourth in 2010. Kentucky won it all in 2012 and was two games away in 2015. And between those two years, Florida went 32-4 in the SEC, finishing in the KenPom Top 5 in 2013 and 2014.
The Cats were back in this hunt in 2017, finishing fourth. But since then, the balance of power has shifted. It’s a convenient timetable for us, as the Vols returned to the national scene in 2018. But we haven’t come alone.
In the last four seasons, no SEC team has finished in the KenPom Top 5; no national superpower to sway perception. But the league has found the size of its top tier increasing dramatically.
Since 2006, the SEC has had 3+ teams finish in the KenPom Top 20 just four times:
- Three in 2012: Kentucky’s national championship season also featured a more youthful version of the Florida teams that would dominate the next two years; the Gators were a 7 seed but made it to the Elite Eight. And this was the last great Vanderbilt team (Jenkins, Taylor, Ezeli), now a decade old.
- Three in 2014: The value of getting hot late. Florida ran through the league undefeated, the best team in the land before falling in the Final Four. Kentucky was an eight seed, but they made it all the way to the title game before also Shabazz Napiered. And the Vols barely got in via Dayton, then almost made the Elite Eight. That triumvirate all finished in the Top 15 in KenPom; the next best SEC squad was Arkansas at 44th.
- Four in 2019: Tennessee’s best team in KenPom had company: Kentucky was eighth, the Vols 10th, Auburn 11th, and LSU 19th in the 2018-19 season. We’re coming back to this point in just a moment.
- Five in 2006: Florida wins it all, Big Baby’s LSU squad makes the Final Four via an overtime win against Rick Barnes and Texas, and the Vols surprise everyone by earning a #2 seed. Plus Arkansas and South Carolina finished 19th and 20th, the Gamecocks by way of two dominant performances in Madison Square Garden to win the NIT.
I’d argue the most interesting basketball for your league comes not from having one or two elite teams, but four or five really good teams. We saw in 2019 how many of those really good teams had a chance to advance deep into March. And heading into league play this year, we could be looking at the same thing.
Right now in KenPom: Tennessee, LSU, Kentucky, and Auburn go 9-12. And Alabama is 18th.
When we talk about playing Villanova or Arizona as a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight feel? Coming in, the Vols should get regular chances at those kind of games in league play too. And right away:
The bottom of the league isn’t great with Georgia and Missouri. The middle…well, I’m unsure how many teams are in the middle. I don’t know if the league will go five deep or eight deep in the NCAA Tournament.
And I’m not sure if one of the top tier teams in the league will separate themselves and earn a #1 seed. But that’s in part because those teams are going to see each other on such a regular basis.
And again, right away: on Wednesday, LSU is at Auburn at 7:00 PM, the Vols in Tuscaloosa at 9:00 PM. If you love SEC Basketball, this looks like an incredible year, one of the best of our lifetimes.
And Tennessee should be in the thick of it.