Remember March 1, 2014?
Kentucky had just lost to South Carolina. Tennessee had not yet solidified its NCAA tournament resume to the point where it was more likely than not to make the Big Dance. Yes, Arkansas had thrust itself into the heart of the March Madness conversation, but the Razorbacks quickly played themselves out of tournament contention with two awful performances over the next 13 days against Alabama and South Carolina.
On March 1, 2014, the SEC was at risk of being a two-bid conference in the NCAAs, and Kentucky looked like a dead team walking. The league was “Florida and more than seven dwarfs.”
Now, the SEC is on the cusp of becoming something special… but two men in positions of power must make the right decisions in the coming days in order for that to happen.
With Cuonzo Martin packing his bags for Berkeley, Calif., and Frank Haith intending to tiptoe to Tulsa, two historically underachieving SEC programs — Tennessee and Missouri — have a chance to make substantial upgrades at the head coaching position. If they hit home runs, or at least triples, what had been a largely barren landscape could suddenly become quite fertile in a region known much more for its football prowess than its hoops heights. Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart and Missouri AD Mike Alden hold lightning in their hands. If they use their power well, a conference mocked for its lack of quality in men’s basketball could soon author a very different story.
It has been a point of contention in the college basketball community over the past few years: Has the SEC suffered more because of a lack of quality players or a lack of quality coaching? In many ways, this is a chicken-and-egg kind of argument, but the more one thinks about the matter, the more it seems that the coaching has been more of a problem than the athletes on the floor.
It’s true that Georgia is a program which has not brought enough high-end players inside the schoolhouse gates. Mark Fox is a capable coach, but he hasn’t collected the talent needed to reach the next level in Athens. Vanderbilt has a skilled coach in the person of Kevin Stallings, but a combination of suspensions, departures and injuries left the Commodores impotent this past season. Yet, when one gets past those examples, the needle begins to move toward the “coaching” side of the equation.
Alabama and LSU were supposed to have had the horses needed to get to the NCAA tournament this past season. Missouri fit into the same category, which is precisely why Haith’s apparent departure for Tulsa is such a potentially liberating moment for the Tigers and their fans. Ole Miss couldn’t do much of anything with Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers. Tennessee, of course, didn’t fulfill its potential until the beginning of the NCAA tournament (against Iowa in the First Four).
The argument that the SEC needs better coaching more than better players was buttressed, of course, not just by the failures of several programs, but by the successes of its two elite schools. Florida dominated all year without a single superstar player. Kentucky, much like Tennessee, waited until March to fulfill its promise, but the Wildcats didn’t merely compensate for a miserable November-through-February stretch by getting to the Sweet 16 as the Vols did. No, Kentucky regularly does things on a larger scale, and so it was that John Calipari guided his team to the national championship game before suffering a free throw-based loss to Connecticut.
Calipari and Billy Donovan deliver results, which only serves to reinforce the extent to which other SEC coaches don’t. Talent deficiencies exist at some SEC programs, but it’s impossible to avoid noticing how Cal and Billy D adjust to the weaknesses on their respective rosters. Other SEC coaches aren’t keeping pace. If more superstar power can flow into this league — Bruce Pearl’s arrival in Auburn represents one school’s attempt to compete with Big Blue and Gator Nation — the SEC can become an elite conference in college hoops. This is why Tennessee’s and Missouri’s coaching searches carry so much importance on a national level.
There’s a more localized angle to be found here as well: For the Vols and Tigers, these searches also carry the weight of history. Tennessee and Missouri have somehow failed to make a single Final Four. Just one trip to college basketball’s biggest stage would remove a mountain of accumulated anxiety and psychological baggage from these fan bases. The achievement would mark a UT or Mizzou coach as a lifelong hero in Knoxville or Columbia. Reaching a Final Four would also remove (or at least diminish) the notion that a top-tier coach can’t thrive at a non-Kentucky, non-Florida SEC school. If the Vols or Tigers can cross the threshold once, they could repeat the feat many times over.
First things first, though: Tennessee and Missouri need to make the right hires. The long-term health of the SEC as a men’s basketball conference depends in large part on these upcoming decisions.
We’ll be sure to render a verdict on the very consequential choices Dave Hart and Mike Alden will make in the coming weeks.