When the league expanded before the start of the 2012-13 season, basketball was expected to be one of the biggest winners. The year before, not only did Kentucky win the national championship, but incoming Missouri was 30-4 and a two seed out of the Big 12. They lost to Norfolk State in the first round, perhaps a sign of things to come: for the first four years with Mizzou and Texas A&M in the fold, the SEC really struggled to improve itself in the national conversation.
In 2013 the league put just three teams in the NCAA Tournament, and would’ve had just two if not for Marshall Henderson in the SEC Tournament. Florida went 18-0 in league play the following year, with the Vols just making three tournament teams via Dayton. Kentucky went 18-0 the next year. And in 2016, Vanderbilt squeaked in as an 11-seed with 14 losses, then got blown out by Wichita State.
The first noticeable improvement came in 2017. It started small: five tournament teams, all seeded nine or better. Then three of them made it through to the Elite Eight.
2018 saw the most competitive battle for the league crown, with Tennessee and Auburn sharing at 13-5 while eight teams made the NCAA Tournament. And in 2019 the league had two teams in the final KenPom Top 10 (Vols and Cats), five in the Top 25, and seven in the Top 50, all setting or tying records for the SEC in the expansion era. Four teams made what was one of the most loaded Sweet 16’s in the history of the tournament.
Who knows what would’ve happened last March, but in the regular season the league took a step back. We think four teams would’ve been in the tournament for sure, but Kentucky was the highest-rated in KenPom at only 29th. And in KenPom’s conference rankings, which rate each league based on how a good a team expected to go .500 in your conference is, the SEC finished sixth, a clear step back after finishing fourth in 2018 and 2019.
But this year, the SEC rates as the third best conference in college basketball. It is the league’s best mark since 2007. In the expansion era using that KenPom .500 team ranking:
What makes the SEC stronger this year?
The league is good at the top. The SEC currently has four teams in the KenPom Top 30, and could still get three teams on the Top 4 seed lines of the NCAA Tournament if the Vols and Arkansas do well in Nashville, which only happened in 2019 in the expansion era.
And Alabama has an opportunity to be one of the ten best SEC teams of the expansion era:
Best SEC Teams via KenPom, 2013-present
And the league is much better at the bottom. Texas A&M is the wild card in this pandemic year, playing zero games in the month of February. They bring up the rear in KenPom at 130th. But ahead of them is South Carolina at 103rd; even Vanderbilt, who we tend to think of as struggling so mightily, is 91st. Last year the Commodores were 169th. In 2019 they were 155th. In 2017 LSU was 172nd; Auburn was 189th in Bruce Pearl’s second season, Missouri 192nd in 2015, and Mississippi State spent 2013 and 2014 in the 200s. You get the idea.
Even the “bad” teams in this league have much more of a pulse this year, and almost everyone has at least the makings of a good coach. We’re a long way from the kind of struggles Johnny Jones, Kim Anderson, Rick Ray, Tony Barbee, etc. faced just a few short years ago. In fact, three of those schools are going to make the NCAA Tournament this year, and the fourth has Ben Howland.
It could make for an amazing SEC Tournament, where I don’t think you’d be totally surprised if any of eight different teams won it, or if Alabama simply finished the job. But it should be a point of pride no matter what your team does in Nashville, including the Vols. The league is better than we’ve probably been giving it credit for, and having a chance to earn a double bye in its tournament is no small feat. We’ll see how it all plays out for everyone in the NCAA Tournament, but SEC Basketball continues to move in the right direction, and that’s good news for everyone.