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Why Does The SEC Suck at Basketball? Part 1

As we prepare for basketball season, we deal with the meme that the SEC Is Down. It hasn't quite always been this way.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC sucks at basketball.  It's the recent meme that just won't die.

While it's true that in 2013 and 2014, the SEC only put three teams in the NCAA Tournament, last year that number was five.  Yet we still get treated to articles about whether this will be the year that the SEC turns the corner. Didn't we just have that season?

Well... sort of.  Sure, the SEC put five teams in the tournament, but just one of those (you know who) got a top-four seed and only two (Kentucky and Arkansas) even won a game in the round of 64.  For all intents and purposes, the SEC is little different right now from the MVC or the WCC, conferences with a single dominant team capable of getting a high seed in the tournament and winning a few games.  Aside from that, the teams past the top dog are only slightly better than those in the WCC.  Or, at least that's the perception.

This will be an ongoing series.  In the first part, we'll explore the who: who's to blame for the SEC's recent down cycle?  Numbers presented are since 1985.

The Top Dogs

School Winning Seasons Tournament NCAA Wins
Kentucky 29 26 74

Kentucky is, and pretty much always has been, the top dog in the SEC.  In the last 31 seasons, they've had a winning record in SEC play 29 times.  (The two times they didn't: 1989 and 2009.  Not coincidentally, Eddie Sutton and Billy Gillispie, respectively, were looking for new jobs afterwards.)

Kentucky has won 22 NCAA Tournament games in John Calipari's six years in Lexington; suffice to say, they are not the problem.

The Upper Middle Class

School Winning Seasons Tournament NCAA Wins
Florida 22 19 42
Alabama 16 15 18
Arkansas 13 13 20

Arkansas's numbers are since they joined the league in 1992, and these three programs have had a winning record and made the NCAA Tournament in a majority of their seasons in the league.  The SEC has had these three as rotating second bananas behind Kentucky, starting with Alabama in the 1980s, then Arkansas in the 1990s and Florida since 2000.  The latter two won national titles.  Alabama never got to the Final Four, but they did make the Sweet 16 five times between 1985 and 1991.

I should also point out that Alabama's run ended roughly when Wimp Sanderson got fired; ditto Arkansas and Nolan Richardson.  So Florida's current status as second fiddle may be in jeopardy now that Billy Donovan is gone.

You're probably thinking it's weird to see Alabama listed up there with Florida and Arkansas, but that's a big part of the SEC's recent malaise: it only seems weird in light of the last few years.  'Bama had 13 winning seasons, 14 tournament appearances, and 18 tournament wins from 1985-2006; since then, they've had three winning seasons, one tournament appearance, and no wins.

Which, if we're being honest, isn't that much worse than Arkansas: in the same time frame, the Razorbacks have had four winning SEC seasons, three tournament appearances, and two wins.  And if you buy that Florida may be about to fall off, having Alabama and Arkansas continue to struggle would be pretty disastrous for the league.  These three perhaps have the best opportunities for sustained success outside of Kentucky, and two of them have been mostly squandering it lately.

The Middle Class

School Winning Seasons Tournament NCAA Wins
Tennessee 14 12 14
LSU 12 15 16
Georgia 12 11 4
Mississippi State 12 9 10
Vanderbilt 11 11 9

Or else, somebody out of this group will need to rise up and claim the title.  But who?

Tennessee might actually fall closer to the upper-middle class right now; the Vols have 12 winning seasons, 11 tournament appearances, and 14 tournament wins in the last 18 years.  The bird's-eye view looks worse because of the tail end of Don DeVoe's tenure in Knoxville, followed by the disastrous Wade Houston/Kevin O'Neill era.  Then again, the last five years or so haven't been very good.

LSU, on the other hand, has been boom-or-bust.  The Tigers have won 16 NCAA Tournament games since 1985, but 11 of those have come in just three appearances (Final Four runs in 1986 and 2006, and an Elite Eight run in 1987.)  They've somehow managed to make the tournament 15 times while having a winning SEC record just 12 times.  And, of course, since 2006 they've had a winning SEC record just twice.

Vandy breaks the mold, with five winning seasons since 2006 to go along with five tournament appearances... albeit just three tournament wins.  AoG readers probably don't need to be reminded of any of this, but it's worth pointing out that Vandy has been a relatively recent entry to the SEC's middle class.  Before that, Vandy had six winning SEC seasons in 22 years.  Do I need to remind anyone that Van Breda Kolff stunk at this?

Mississippi State's 12 winning seasons in SEC play all came between 1991 and 2011, with the Bulldogs not doing anything before or since.  That includes the boom-or-bust Richard Williams era (only three tournament appearances, but six tournament wins, including a Final Four) and Rick Stansbury, who made the tournament six times but did nothing once he got there.

And last there's Georgia, which has been, well, consistent about this.  Aside from when Dennis Felton was hampered by NCAA sanctions, the Bulldogs have usually just plodded along at right around .500 in the SEC, occasionally making the tournament, but never really doing anything once they get there.

The Doormats

School Winning Seasons Tournament NCAA Wins
Ole Miss 7 7 5
Auburn 5 7 12
South Carolina 3 3 0

Ole Miss's recent bout of cromulence notwithstanding, they were the SEC's quintessential doormat for a very long time.  From 1946 to 2009, the Rebels had a winning record in SEC play eight times.  Now that's futility.  Of course, they've also had a winning record three times in the last six seasons.  We'll wait and see how long it lasts.  My guess is that it will last until they get a case of the dumbs and fire Andy Kennedy.

So, Ole Miss had a winning record 8 times in 64 years at one point.  In percentage terms, that's equal to South Carolina's run since joining the SEC; the Gamecocks have had a winning record in SEC play three times in 24 years.  One of the great mysteries in life is how accomplished head coaches (Eddie Fogler, Dave Odom, and Frank Martin) continue to talk themselves into the South Carolina job.  Maybe they're confused about which Carolina they'll be coaching, I really don't know.

Auburn's been similarly futile to South Carolina -- two of their winning seasons occurred in 1986 and 1988.  Since 1988, they're three-for-27 in putting together a winning SEC record.  Of course, unlike the Gamecocks, Auburn has made the most of their rare good seasons, as they rank sixth in NCAA Tournament wins in spite of, well, rarely making the tournament.  South Carolina, on the other hand, hasn't even won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973 -- yes, 1973.  To put that in perspective, 1973 was the year before Hall of Famer Alex English enrolled at USC.  That's right, South Carolina had a freaking Hall of Famer suiting up for four years and couldn't win a game in the tournament.  (Which -- well, Auburn never won a tournament game in three years with Charles Barkley, so I guess that's sorta forgivable.)

The Newbies

School Winning Seasons Tournament NCAA Wins
Missouri 1 1 0
Texas A&M 1 0 0

And finally, the two new members of the league haven't been helping much.  Which, for traditional SWC/Big 12 doormat Texas A&M, that should have been expected, though the run for a few years under Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon clouded perceptions of that program.

Missouri, on the other hand -- seriously, you guys were supposed to be helping things.

The State of the League

So, at least since Calipari took over, Kentucky has retained their place atop the league.  Billy Donovan had a good run at Florida.  Georgia is what they've always been, and Ole Miss is actually better than usual.

But that's four of the league's programs.  Prolonged slides by Arkansas, Alabama, and LSU, as well as more recent downturns by Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt, have done a lot to hurt the SEC's perception in basketball.  Obviously our AoG audience is well aware of why Vandy hasn't made the tournament since 2012, but what the hell happened to the others?  What happened right around 2006-08 that caused the SEC to go from a league that regularly put half its members in the tournament to being a league that occasionally needs a surprise automatic bid winner just to get three bids?

Most importantly -- is anything being done to correct this?  All those are the questions that we'll explore in this series.