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SEC Basketball Has a Fever, and the Only Prescription is Cash

How do you go from one of the worst major conferences in college basketball to having four coaches with Final Four experience? Let your football money do the talking.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012-13 the SEC finished eighth in conference RPI.  The league wasn't just at the bottom of the so-called power conferences, it was in danger of being passed by in national perception by leagues like the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, with the college basketball landscape shifting during conference realignment.

Basketball was thought to be one of the big winners for the SEC in realignment, adding Texas A&M and a Missouri program that many believed would instantly and regularly become one of the top five in the SEC.  Even though Mizzou just finished at the bottom of the league this year, I do think expansion has helped SEC Basketball overall; without the Tigers and Marshall Henderson's run through the SEC Tournament, the league would have been in danger of placing just one team in the NCAA Tournament in 2013.

But with the advent of the SEC Network and the continued excellence of many of the conference's football programs, the lifeblood at every school that isn't Kentucky, the entire conference is set to reap the financial rewards.  We've seen how the absence of some of those rewards has played out in past basketball coaching searches at Tennessee, where it felt like the Vols couldn't or wouldn't make the higher-dollar pushes because of multiple buyouts from past failures and a struggle to get football back.  But in the last few years, schools looking to make a change in basketball have made moves which would now be considered an upgrade almost across the board.

Here are the SEC's basketball coaching changes in the last four years:

  • Arkansas:  John Pelphrey to Mike Anderson
  • Auburn:  Tony Barbee to Bruce Pearl
  • LSU:  Trent Johnson to Johnny Jones
  • Mississippi State:  Rick Ray to Ben Howland
  • Missouri:  Frank Haith to Kim Anderson
  • South Carolina:  Darrin Horn to Frank Martin
  • Tennessee:  Donnie Tyndall to Rick Barnes
  • Texas A&M:  Mark Turgeon to Billy Kennedy

Of the eight who have made changes, five would say they made an upgrade and most would say it was significant.  You'd have to ask an LSU fan how they feel about Johnny Jones vs Trent Johnson, but it was a significant upgrade in recruiting.  Kim Anderson is only one year into this thing, and just because Billy Kennedy isn't Mark Turgeon doesn't mean he isn't a good basketball coach.

The old group has 19 lifetime NCAA Tournament appearances, with six of those belonging to Turgeon.  But only three of those 19 happened during their SEC stops:  one for Pelphrey, one for Johnson, and one for Haith (Turgeon was at A&M during their Big 12 days).  None of them made it to the Sweet 16.

The new group has 48 lifetime NCAA Tournament appearances, with 40 of them belonging to Barnes, Howland, and Pearl.  Those three are the poster children for the change that's happening in SEC Basketball.  A couple years ago only Florida and Kentucky had nationally elite coaches, with the rest of the league either serving as revolving doors, stepping stones, or long-term places of refuge for good-but-not-great coaches.  Members of all three categories have decided to make, and pay for, an upgrade.  Auburn had ten years of Jeff Lebo and Tony Barbee before it went out and got Bruce Pearl with its championship football money.  Tennessee had made four consecutive mid-major hires and lost one of them to the Pac-12 after a Sweet 16 appearance before it broke the $2 million threshold to bring in Rick Barnes.  And Alabama, who had six years of 19.5 wins on average with Anthony Grant, is out there right now waving its checkbook around.

The additions of Barnes, Howland, and Pearl in the last year have instantly changed slots 3-5 in the SEC's pecking order of coaches, and if Alabama does get Gregg Marshall you might need the eraser again.  You've still got John Calipari and Billy Donovan at the top, but now guys like Kevin Stallings, Andy Kennedy, and Frank Martin have to be considered not just further down the list, but possibly in the lower half of the SEC.

And at the top, the SEC now has 14 Final Four appearances among its coaches.  It ain't the ACC, untouchable with Coach K, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, and Jim Boeheim combining for 30.  But it is second among all conferences, one more than the Big Ten and now significantly ahead of the Big 12's six.

Here's a fun question:  if Gregg Marshall does in fact go to Alabama, who's the SEC's second worst coach?  You have to put Kim Anderson at the bottom right now, but who's next?  Is it Johnny Jones, who has the number one high school player in the nation coming to Baton Rouge?  Is it Frank Martin, who went to the Elite Eight at Kansas State?  Is it Mark Fox, who's just won 20+ in back-to-back seasons?  Is it Kevin Stallings, who's won 19.5 games a year at Vanderbilt for 16 years?  Is it Andy Kennedy, who's won 21.3 games a year at Ole Miss and just went dancing?  I feel like if you have to give an answer it's maybe Billy Kennedy, who has improved every year he's been at Texas A&M and went 11-7 in the league this year.

Two years ago it was really hard to name the third best coach in the league.  Now it's really hard to name the second worst.

Somebody is still going to finish last in this league every year.  But in college basketball 40% of your games are of the non-conference variety.  That means the SEC has a chance to go from the league that gets 3-5 teams in the tournament to the league that gets 5-7 teams on the dance floor.  And that means those Tuesday night 9:00 PM games on the SEC Network go from who cares to must-watch.

These things don't happen by chance.  Good programs are driven by good hires, and it's a whole lot easier to make a good hire when you've got the money to do so.  For those who said a football-first conference could never be elite in basketball?  They just weren't patient enough.  Now that the football-driven SEC Network money is rolling in, everyone benefits and basketball is the most obvious right now.  As Rick Barnes said in his press conference, you want the school that has football.  And in this league, that's almost everyone.

So now instead of rolling the dice on assistants or up-and-comers, which sometimes you get right but more often you get wrong, the SEC is paying for proven winners.  With Alabama still on the table, already half the league has made its last hire from a major program.  And of the six that didn't, one was Florida who got Billy Donovan from Marshall.  Again, sometimes you get it really right.  And for the other five, you've got just one year of evidence on Kim Anderson, and then you've got Fox, Jones, Billy Kennedy, and Stallings, all of whom have been relatively successful.

All of this is one more reason why Tennessee was wise to pursue and pay for Rick Barnes.  The Vols once again have themselves a chip at the final table...and more and more teams are pulling up a seat.