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Spreading the Gospel of SEC Basketball

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The Elite Eight wasn’t the first proof, just the latest: after the ACC and Big 12, the SEC can make a claim as the next best conference in college basketball thanks to its current crop of coaches.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-South Carolina vs Florida Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

So Kentucky didn’t win, narrowly missing an opportunity to have two SEC teams in the Final Four for the second time in the last four years. But the argument for the rise of SEC Basketball is even stronger when it doesn’t depend on the Cats to carry it.

The bracket itself proved the point: this was the first time in ten years the SEC had four teams seeded 1-8. Then the last two weeks gave us three Elite Eight teams for the first time since 1986. In RPI the league played the most difficult non-conference schedule during the regular season, a change mandated by the league office and executed in full this season.

But it’s one thing to play those games and another to win them. And the SEC is winning far more often right now for one reason: the quality of its coaches.

Here’s a good first pass on the quality of another league’s coaches: how many can you name off the top of your head?

I got most of the ACC coaches on the first try (sorry, Boston College). As we’ll see and you probably guessed, the quality of the coaches in that league is so much higher than any other, there’s really no comparison. The Coach K/Roy/Pitino/Boeheim quartet has 34 Final Four appearances. The SEC’s 14 current coaches have 35 Sweet 16 appearances. We’re not winning that fight.

But how many Big East, Big 10, Big 12, or Pac 12 coaches can you name off the top of your head? Half? Two-thirds?

Fans of schools in those conferences might easily scoff and say they could name only the same ratio of SEC coaches. But I make this point to introduce the idea that the SEC is no longer playing fourth-or-fifth fiddle among the major conference players; the playing field is a lot more even than it has been in the past. And far beyond how many coaches the average fan can name, the most important statistics show the current crop of SEC coaches is equal to or better than the set of coaches in every league other than the ACC.

Over the weekend I researched the career win-loss records (D-I only) of every current major conference college basketball coach. The data comes from Wikipedia. First, here’s where every current SEC coach stands:

Current SEC Basketball Coaches

Team Coach Wins Losses Pct. NCAA Sweet 16 Final Four National Title
Team Coach Wins Losses Pct. NCAA Sweet 16 Final Four National Title
Alabama Avery Johnson 37 30 0.552
Arkansas Mike Anderson 328 172 0.656 8 2
Auburn Bruce Pearl 275 153 0.643 8 4
Florida Mike White 149 64 0.700 1 1
Georgia Mark Fox 268 161 0.625 5
Kentucky John Calipari 651 191 0.773 18 13 5 1
LSU Will Wade 91 45 0.669 2
Mississippi Andy Kennedy 255 152 0.627 2
Mississippi St Ben Howland 431 240 0.642 10 5 3
Missouri Cuonzo Martin 186 121 0.606 2 1
South Carolina Frank Martin 213 125 0.630 5 2 1
Tennessee Rick Barnes 635 349 0.645 22 6 1
Texas A&M Billy Kennedy 326 264 0.553 3 1
Vanderbilt Bryce Drew 143 65 0.688 3
Totals 3988 2132 0.652 89 35 10 1

Earlier this year we looked at SEC Basketball since 2000 in making the case for the league’s at-large contenders. The SEC’s least successful program during that span? It’s the one in the Final Four right now. The two who just made coaching changes (LSU and Missouri) are traditionally in the SEC’s top half. We all have our crazy, but I’d argue every one of our 14 programs should feel reasonably confident in its current leadership.

In winning percentage and NCAA Tournament appearances, the SEC is topped by not only the ACC but the Big 12. With fewer teams and a rookie head coach at Oklahoma State, the career work of Bill Self and Bob Huggins represents a huge piece of the Big 12 pie. But in Sweet 16 and Final Four appearances, the SEC and Big 12 are on much more level ground.

And from there, the SEC’s current coaches have the advantage on the Big East, Big Ten, and Pac 12.

Current Power Conference Coaches

League Pct NCAA Sweet 16 Final Four National Title
League Pct NCAA Sweet 16 Final Four National Title
Big 12 0.683 98 37 8 1
ACC 0.675 178 88 34 10
SEC 0.652 89 35 10 1
Big 10 0.629 86 32 10 1
Pac 12 0.619 56 17 1 0
Big East 0.601 50 12 3 1

We can argue about the details with the Big 12 and the Big Ten. But this perception that the SEC is somewhere behind all these other leagues in the pecking order? Not with this group of coaches. Not even close. It’s the ACC, then a nod to the Big 12, and then the SEC is right there.

And the SEC is very young.

(For those interested, here’s the full data over six sheets. With Georgetown still looking for a coach I used John Thompson III’s numbers.)