In case you haven’t noticed, SEC basketball has crashed. It seems like years ago that Florida was putting on a clinic in successive March seasons on its way to consecutive national championships. Heck, it seems like even longer ago when the SEC continually had multiple teams ranked in the Top 25.
Many computer rankings score the Mountain West to be a better league than the SEC, and the conference can’t dream of challenging the mighty Big East, ACC, and Big Ten.
What happened? Why can’t SEC programs put extended periods of success together these days? Perhaps the long-term success of SEC basketball depends on the long-term success of its most hated member, the team all others love to beat, the team that opposing fans will fill the seats to see.
The SEC needs Kentucky to become dominant again.
The SEC will always, always put football first. This will never change. It does not matter how much success Tennessee, Florida, or any other school has on the hardwood, for what happens on the football field will determine the fans’ happiness. The exceptions are Vanderbilt (a true anomaly in this league) and, of course, Kentucky.
Therefore, the national media will always consider SEC basketball an afterthought as compared to its rivals. The reason? SEC basketball programs have failed to establish themselves as national powers on a consistent basis.
Florida did win multiple national championships, but it missed the NCAAs altogether the next year. Tennessee might be a trendy favorite because of its flamboyant head coach, but the program has never made the Elite Eight, much less won a national championship. There has not been a consistent national power in the West since the mid-1990s, when Arkansas thrived under Nolan Richardson.
Which brings us to Kentucky. From 1992 to 2005, Kentucky was a staple on the national scene, earning no less than a five seed in the NCAA tournament. But the last three-plus years, the standard of excellence in the SEC has slipped mightily to where a top-25 ranking is rare. This is the only SEC program that puts more energy into basketball than football.
With Kentucky standing as dictator of the SEC, other SEC programs become motivated to work harder to reach that standard of excellence. It motivated a former Kentucky assistant to recruit better in the Swamp, and it resulted in two national titles. A dominant Kentucky program will motivate other SEC basketball programs to get better, to reach the standard of excellence that the Wildcats control.
Can Tennessee, Florida, LSU, or any of the other 11 schools set that bar? Not when the fans celebrate a big basketball victory by waking up the next morning and seeing how spring practice is going.
The SEC needs its villain back to motivate the league to return to national respectability.