College Basketball: Ranking the Coaches in the SEC
Southeastern Conference basketball is not the same as SEC football. The basketball teams do not routinely compete for national championships.
But just because the conference doesn’t have every single one of their basketball teams clamoring for postseason bids does not mean that there aren’t still some pretty good coaches hanging around.
Many of the teams in the SEC have become identified by a scrappy, quick, have-no-fear kind of attitude. Those teams can be dangerous come tournament time.
Some of the very best SEC coaches are granted endless supplies of 5-star recruits with all the talent in the world.
However, others make a living by molding decent players into winners. Coaches at lower-profile schools must work with what they are given. Some coaches are simply better at that task than others.
In ranking this year’s SEC basketball coaches, past seasons will be examined, but this year’s campaign will be studied more closely.
In ascending order, here is a ranking of all of the coaches in the SEC.
12. Tony Barbee
The Auburn Tigers were off to a 10-4 start and appeared drastically improved from a year ago. Three of their losses were to good teams—Seton Hall, Long Beach State and Florida State.
The Tigers were in for a resurgence this year, right?
Not so much.
The perennially underachieving Vanderbilt Commodores rolled into town, ripe to be upset and then…well, simply, they crushed every last ounce of life out of Auburn.
Auburn lost 65-35, failing to crack 20 points in either half. Then, suddenly, all of the Tigers' deficiencies were on full display.
Their weak nonconference schedule looked as if they had played a slew of high school teams. Three of the team’s losses were by at least 20 points, and Auburn didn’t look as if they were competing so much as trying not to get run off the court.
It’s safe to say that coach Tony Barbee has not turned the Tigers' fortunes quite yet. In his first season, which was last year, Barbee led the team to an 11-20 record.
Based on the Tigers’ performance so far, it doesn’t look like things are going to get that much better anytime soon.
Barbee’s teams struggle defensively and offensively. They have lengthy defensive lapses that allow opponents to go on huge runs to blow games open.
Compounding those problems, the team does not have enough firepower offensively to keep up with high-scoring teams.
11. Trent Johnson
In his first season coaching the LSU Tigers, Trent Johnson led the team to a 27-8 record, first place in the SEC and right into the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
Johnson seemed like the ideal candidate to replace John Brady and lead the Tigers to an NCAA Championship.
Johnson responded with two straight 11-20 seasons, failing to make the postseason both times.
This year, LSU is off to an 11-4 start and recently upset the 10th-ranked Marquette Golden Eagles. Johnson has been coaching a young team for the past few years, and it seems as if it's finally maturing.
However, it is still readily apparent that Johnson does not have nearly the same talent for recruiting and developing players as his predecessor, Brady.
He is missing out on getting commitments from the most talented kids from Louisiana. The ones he does convince to play for the Tigers, Johnson does not develop as quickly as he should.
Major contributors for LSU’s team this season include a transfer from Utah and a freshman from Mississippi. The team’s two seniors from Louisiana both average less than 10 points per game.
10. Darrin Horn
Darrin Horn is firmly on the hot seat as the coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. His teams have a tendency to start off seasons strong, but simply cannot finish down the stretch.
In Horn's first year coaching the Gamecocks, his squad opened with a 20-6 record, but lost three of its last four games and miss the postseason.
The next year, the team opened with a 13-8 record, then lost eight of its last 10 (including a nine-point first half performance against the Georgia Bulldogs).
Last season, South Carolina had a 12-5 record before losing 10 of their last 12 games, many of which were blowouts.
This season has not helped Horn’s tenuous job status. The Gamecocks are 8-7, having dropped games to Elon and Tennessee State.
Yet this team, like many of Horn’s other squads, has talent. Bruce Ellington, a dual-sport athlete, is finally back on the basketball team full-time after finishing up with South Carolina’s football team last week.
Horn’s squad is young. Senior Malik Cooke is the team’s leading scorer and hopefully helping the many freshmen and sophomores mature.
Horn must hope that his players grow up sooner rather than later. If he has another sub-par SEC season, Horn will not keep his job for long.
9. Mark Fox
Mark Fox is not a bad coach. His teams are made up of scrappy, often overachieving players who buckle down on defense.
The problem with Fox and his Georgia Bulldogs teams is that he must build on the raw potential he begins with. So far, it remains to be seen if Fox will be able to do that.
Fox began his tenure in Athens with a 14-17 campaign. He followed that up with a 21-12 season and a trip to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
If Fox and the Bulldogs were still building on last season’s success, they would be sure to be heading in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Georgia is currently 9-6 and the team has lost a number of winnable games.
Stellar freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is leading the team in scoring and could be a great asset for Fox going forward. The only question is whether Fox can harness the talent he has and develop it into a surefire NCAA tournament team.
8. Andy Kennedy
The Ole Miss Rebels are 10-5 this season, but could be in for some turmoil down the road. Head coach Andy Kennedy kicked leading scorer Dundrecous Nelson off the team along with a little-used role player.
Kennedy’s teams at Ole Miss are often solid, but unspectacular. This year could be a down year unless the squad can regroup and improve their play.
As a coach, Kennedy does fairly well with the talent he is given. He is not a great recruiter, but makes the most of his players.
At the beginning of the season, Ole Miss looked as if it was in for a good year. The Rebels won nine of their first 10 games with their lone loss coming to the 19th-ranked Marquette Golden Eagles.
Then, one would guess, the Nelson mess began. The Rebels dropped four of their next five.
Kennedy will not let the loss of Nelson distract his team. In losing the SEC opener to the LSU Tigers, Kennedy refused to blame a shortage of players (the Rebels were also without their leading rebounder due to a high ankle sprain) on the loss.
Kennedy’s teams are always good, but never great. The Rebels are often a threat to upset ranked teams, but can rarely carry out that play for a complete season.
7. Rick Stansbury
Rick Stansbury has led his Mississippi State Bulldogs teams to postseason play nine times in 11 seasons.
He has almost eerily similar records each year, somewhere between 21 and 23 wins and a cusp NCAA tournament selection or an NIT bid.
Last season, the Bulldogs were a mere 17-13 and clearly more distracted by off-court drama than the prospect of winning basketball games.
Stansbury’s last-ditch recruitment of troubled prospects like Renardo Sidney hurt the team more than it helped. Multiple suspensions and players leaving the program were responsible for last season’s demise.
This year, Stansbury has removed much of the dissension, and the team is responding. Point guard Dee Bost has always been a rock and he is continuing his stellar play.
Transfer Arnett Moultrie has provided a huge boost to the Bulldogs, averaging 16.2 points and 11.3 rebounds.
Mississippi State is simply not quite there yet, though. The team showed both its potential and its flaws in almost a one-week span recently.
First, the Bulldogs almost beat the undefeated and seventh-ranked Baylor Bears. Then, they followed that game up with a near loss to the Utah State Aggies and dropped their first SEC game to the Arkansas Razorbacks.
If Stansbury has, in fact, put all of the drama from last season behind him and the team, Mississippi State will be a great team. If not, expect another down year.
6. Cuonzo Martin
When Cuonzo Martin took over the head coaching duties for the Tennessee Volunteers last spring, it was obvious he had a long road ahead of him.
Former head coach Bruce Pearl was fired amidst NCAA investigations and for lying to the infractions committee. While that may make Pearl sound like a shady guy, he appeared to be anything but.
He was billed as the savior of Tennessee basketball. Pearl was gregarious, enthusiastic and seemed to genuinely love his players and the school.
When he was fired, all of the excitement that had surrounded the Volunteers quickly faded.
The man in charge with reviving the program? Martin.
For a first year coach trying to take a program out from under a high profile investigation and sanctions, Martin is doing a fine job.
Tennessee’s schedule was probably a bit too tough early on as the Volunteers played three ranked teams—Duke, Memphis and Pittsburgh—before the season was a month old.
The difficult opponents got to Tennessee, and the team dropped four straight.
But credit Martin, as he was able to help his team weather the storm. The Volunteers bounced back with four straight wins and then, after a disappointing loss to Memphis, beat 14th-ranked Florida to open SEC play.
Martin’s team might not contend for an NCAA berth this season, but in a few years, he should have Tennessee back on top.
5. Kevin Stallings
Kevin Stallings is a solid coach for the Vanderbilt Commodores. His teams almost always win 20 games a season and often make the NCAA tournament.
Stallings’ problem is that he cannot win big games and seems to be unable to get his team to perform well under pressure.
Only twice has Vanderbilt made it out of the second round of the NCAA tournament in Stallings’ tenure. The team is always a good pick to get upset in the first round.
This year, the Commodores began the season ranked No. 7 in the country, their most lofty ranking in years.
They promptly lost their second game of the year to the Cleveland State Vikings, 71-58. See? Not good under pressure.
Vandy then lost two games to ranked teams before dropping another stunner to the Indiana State Sycamores.
Stallings is great at coaching players. He takes good talent and develops it into dominant talent. However, until he can prove that his teams can win postseason games, Stallings will not be a great coach.
4. Mike Anderson
Mike Anderson’s abrupt departure from the Missouri Tigers saddled him with some question marks before he began the season as the Arkansas Razorbacks new head coach.
So far, Anderson has delivered. The Razorbacks are 12-3. Dropping their third game of the season to the Houston Cougars was disappointing, but subsequent losses to the 10th-ranked Connecticut Huskies and the Oklahoma Sooners were understandable.
Anderson welcomed himself to the SEC with a bang by beating the then-No. 16 Mississippi State Bulldogs in his first conference game.
Anderson has Arkansas fans behind him in a big way for a first-year head coach. He has injected new life into the program.
Anderson is also installing new discipline and direction in his players. As they are adapting to his new coaching style, anyone is a threat to go off for a big game.
Against Mississippi State, Julysses Nobles scored 24 points with seven assists after failing to crack the 10-point mark in his eight previous games.
Anderson should have Arkansas among the SEC’s elite in a few seasons.
3. Anthony Grant
Anthony Grant has two great skills that have the Alabama Crimson Tide challenging for a top spot in the SEC—he can develop players and he can recruit within the state.
Grant has developed Jamychal Green, a senior from Alabama, into one of the best big men in the conference.
Sophomore Trevor Releford is coming into his own as a point guard and beginning to lead his team the way fans expected.
Freshman Trevor Lacey, Alabama’s high school player of the year last year, is improving every game.
Grant’s team has not played a very tough schedule thus far, but that does not mean that it will not be challenging for SEC supremacy and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Crimson Tide narrowly lost to the Georgetown Hoyas. One of their two losses was to the Kansas State Wildcats, a team that also recently beat the previously undefeated Missouri Tigers.
Alabama should make some noise in the SEC this season. Grant has his most talented team yet and should be able to win a lot of games.
2. Billy Donovan
The Florida Gators have consistently been one of the top teams in the SEC, and much of that credit should go to Billy Donovan.
Donovan is a great coach who has the ability to fully harness his players’ talent. When he won back-to-back championships in 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, Donovan’s core players were undoubtedly a product of his coaching rather than pure talent.
Donovan has a knack for selecting players who will perfectly complement one another. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer anchored Donovan’s championship teams.
Despite not having overwhelming talent or one specific skill, each player used amazing energy, hustle and compatibility in order to win.
This season, Donovan is relying on two undersized guards—Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker—to lead his team. Donovan has developed both into SEC stars despite their unconventional size.
Donovan’s skill in preaching team basketball and defense has led him and his teams to great success.
1. John Calipari
Yes, John Calipari gets the top recruits in the country every season. Yes, he coaches at one of the most successful and tradition-rich schools in the country.
But that does not mean he is not the best coach in the SEC.
Think about it for a second. Calipari took over a Kentucky Wildcats team that had gone 20-13 the year before (remember, this is Kentucky, 20-13 is not something to brag about), 8-8 in the SEC, and received a humiliating NIT berth.
He then transformed the team and the school, recording his first No. 1 recruiting class, headlined by the best player in the country—John Wall.
Calipari has now had three straight No. 1 recruiting classes. Kentucky has been in the Top 25 consistently since he stepped foot in Lexington. Last year, the team went to the Final Four.
Calipari’s job is not easy. He is a great recruiter. Getting the best of the best to come all the way to Kentucky is not as easy as it might look, especially if they are not assured of playing time right away.
Then, once he secures all of these tremendous players, Calipari must find a way to get them to play together. His teams are almost always comprised mostly of freshman with little to no senior leadership.
This season, Calipari had the even more difficult task of mixing in stud freshmen with sophomores who had excelled last season, but returned to Kentucky to chase a championship.
And the team is still succeeding.
Furthermore, Calipari preaches defense and gets his coddled All-Americans to buy into his system. This year, the Wildcats are first in the nation in defensive field goal percentage.
Calipari does have history and a big-name school on his side. But not everyone can make that combination work. Remember Billy Gillespie?