For SEC hoops, this season hasn’t meant more

Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler (15) during a game against Auburn at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Wed., Feb. 19, 2020.

After losing to Georgia on Wednesday, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl sought to make a point. "Back when I was at Tennessee (from 2005-11) there were a couple of teams that weren't very good. Georgia was one of them. I'm not saying that to be critical, they just were. When I was at Tennessee, Auburn wasn't very good. Who's not very good now? I don't think anybody is. The league's changed. (There are) 14 really good teams in the league."

Which is where we say: Ahem.

Auburn is 22-4, 9-4 in SEC play. After 26 games last season, the Tigers were 18-8 and 7-6. Last year's Auburn would have beaten this year's Auburn by double digits. Last year's Auburn crashed the Final Four and nearly the championship game. This year's Auburn is ranked No. 35 nationally by KenPomNo. 28 by the NCAA's NET.

Auburn is one of only two SEC teams that ESPN's Bubble Watch lists as NCAA tournament locks. Kentucky is the other. The Wildcats are 28th in KenPom, 22nd in NET. Our point being: There aren't 14 "really good" SEC teams in 2020. There mightn't be three.

We've been saying that this is the thinnest college basketball season since … well, ever. If the NCAA tournament began today, three of the top eight seeds would be mid-majors San Diego State, Gonzaga and Dayton. The SEC is projected to receive four bids, as opposed to last season's seven, with Kentucky slotted as a No. 3 seed and Auburn a No. 5 in ESPN's Bracketology. Then it's down to No. 8 LSU and No. 9 Florida. Then it's Mississippi State among the "first four out." Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina comprise three of Joe Lunardi's "next four out."

Look, the ACC is likewise having a down year. Until N.C. State beat Duke by 22 points, the most decorated conference was projected to muster only four NCAA bids. In a nation where there's no great team, the Big Ten and Big East appear the only imposing conferences. What's notable about the SEC is that no team has broken upward.

Here were the predicted standings at the SEC's Media Day in October: Kentucky, Florida, LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

Here are the current standings: Kentucky, Auburn, LSU and Florida tied for third, Mississippi State and South Carolina tied for fifth, Tennessee and Texas A&M tied for seventh, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas and Ole Miss tied for 11th, Georgia and Vanderbilt.

The only SEC teams more than four spots off their projected placements are South Carolina (picked 10th, currently T-fifth) and Texas A&M (picked 12th, now T-seventh). There has been no great leap upward, no utter crash. None of the league’s four new coaches – Nate Oats at Alabama, Eric Musselman at Arkansas, Buzz Williams at A&M, Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt – has caught a flying start. Going by KenPom, the second-best SEC team is ranked No. 35 nationally; last year its fifth-best team finished 26th.

Not to pick on Auburn – the Tigers are without injured freshman Isaac Okoro of McEachern – but a check of conference stats is instructive. Auburn made 39.4 percent of its 3-pointers in conference play last season, the SEC’s second-best mark; this year it has made an SEC-worst 26.9 percent. League opponents have made 36 percent of their treys against the Tigers, the SEC’s second-highest yield. They’ve outscored opponents by six points over 13 games. The closest of the four losses was the 65-55 beating by Georgia. To be fair, the Tigers are good at rebounding and getting fouled.

Still, this wouldn’t be the second-place team in any other major conference, the Big East included. Heck, KenPom ranks 11 Big Ten teams ahead of Auburn. That’s not to say the Tigers couldn’t embark on another run in a March that could be the maddest on record. Okoro figures to return, and Pearl’s a splendid tactician. On the other hand, it’s hard to envision a team that can’t hit 3’s going anywhere worth going.

Auburn has gotten good mileage minus the three Georgians – Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke – from last year's Final Four team. It was ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press preseason poll; it was No. 13 in this week's installment. It started 15-0 largely because of a cake non-conference schedule. It claimed the top spot in the league because of four overtime victories in the span of 15 days. It's now two games behind Kentucky and still must visit Rupp Arena. (Though this isn't an exceptional band of Wildcats, either.)

We say yet again: The indictment here isn’t of Auburn. It’s of the league’s “really good” teams that have produced varying shades of mediocrity. Florida should be way better than it is. LSU represents Vandy’s one league win, and the Commodores, who average 64 points in conference play, hit 99 that night. Arkansas has lost eight of 10. Mississippi State has been a major disappointment, though with four home games remaining it might yet play its way into the Big Dance.

Then there's Georgia. By KenPom's reckoning, the Bulldogs are the nation's 312th-most-experienced team. (There are 353 Division I teams.) Among that youth is 18-year-old Anthony Edwards, the consensus choice as the NBA's No. 1 pick. I can see why this season hasn't worked – bad shooting, scads of turnovers, no size, no consistent performers among upperclassmen  – but I can't help but think a smart coach, which Tom Crean is, couldn't have done more with the biggest talent as the program has seen in four decades.

As it happened, Ant Man’s year in Athens came in a season when the conference ladder was there to be climbed. There has been no ascent. Without Edwards, Georgia finished 13th last season. With him, the Bulldogs are 13th in a league half as good.

Over the four NCAA tournaments from 2013 through 2016, the SEC managed only three bids three times. This prompted commissioner Greg Sankey to hire Mike Tranghese, once the Big East commish, to offer counsel on how to run a basketball league. The next year, three of the Elite Eight were SEC reps. In 2018, the league saw eight teams -- 57.1 percent of its membership -- go dancing.

Credit where it’s due: King Football saw its hoops component step up in class. This year, however, has marked a retreat. Last year four SEC teams reached the Sweet 16. This year the league might have to settle for four teams in the field.

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