No matter how great the closer - and last night was an all-timer, perhaps the all-timer - fans of the 349 schools not playing in the championship game are quick to turn their eyes to next year. A number of way-too-early Top 25s have emerged for the 2016-17 college basketball season, and while it's no surprise to not find the Vols listed anywhere, there's little early faith in the SEC in general.
Kentucky will continue to be Kentucky, getting Top 5 looks on the strength of blue blood recruiting. All of these rankings come with the disclaimer that this year, for the first time, players can declare for the NBA Draft in order to be evaluated in the pre-draft combine, then return to school with no penalty so long as they do so by May 25. The old deadline used to be in April. This has led to John Calipari boasting of sending his entire team to the combine; even if he does and many of them stay in the draft, the Cats are bringing in the nation's number one recruiting class again with five five-stars and four of the top 13 players in the 247 composite.
But after Kentucky, it gets very quiet. And this is becoming a dangerous conversation for the league to be part of.
SB Nation's way-too-early Top 25 includes no other SEC teams, with Texas A&M essentially also receiving votes. ESPN's has the Aggies at #19 but that's it; considering A&M will lose Danuel House, Alex Caruso, and Jalen Jones to graduation this ranking feels more like "somebody's gotta come in second in this league" than anything.
Somebody does have to come in second, of course. But last year South Carolina came in third at 24-8 and got left out.
If the SEC doesn't want to become this decade's version of Conference USA when Calipari was at Memphis, the product has to start trending upward. A year ago we felt like the foundation was in place with the arrivals of Bruce Pearl, Ben Howland, and Rick Barnes. USA Today takes a flyer on Mississippi State at #23 in their early Top 25, as Howland is bringing in six four-stars in the nation's sixth-ranked class. Barnes' first class ranks in the top half of the SEC and could still grow by one with Ray Kasongo's departure. Pearl, a year ahead, brought in the third-best class in the league including five-star forward Mustapha Heron.
But the league also lost a sure thing in Billy Donovan and, for better or worse, now has coaching turnover at one of its more consistent basketball institutions in Nashville. Sometimes that goes well, sometimes you get Mississippi State between Rick Stansbury and Ben Howland. The addition of Missouri, thought to be a huge asset in basketball, has obviously gone a different way.
I think the league still has some really good coaches, and if they can continue to recruit at a higher level the results will eventually come. Schools like South Carolina can only blame themselves for being left out due to a weak non-conference schedule, something the league has improved overall and definitely won't be a problem for Tennessee.
And for teams like the Vols, the vacuum behind Kentucky at the top can become an opportunity. Who's the second best team in the SEC next year? There's not a specific pecking order right now, no two games with Florida or Vanderbilt you have to circle as losses. If Barnes continues to build his program, Tennessee can once again become one of the more feared teams in the SEC, and perhaps faster than we think. But if being one of the more feared teams in the SEC is going to actually mean something on Selection Sunday, we'll need all 14 schools to continue to invest in basketball in coaching and scheduling. If not, the SEC's place as a power conference will be in jeopardy.