Look back, look ahead: SEC


Somehow, the SEC was the nation's most disappointing and successful conference in 2013-14. After a mad dash to Selection Sunday, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Missouri failed to earn invites to the NCAA tournament.

The three SEC programs that did, however, thrived. Tennessee began in the First Four and made a run to the Sweet 16. Florida, the top team in the country for a chunk of the season, was the favorite to win the national championship but fell to Connecticut in the Final Four. Kentucky, after a turbulent season, rode a postseason burst all the way to the national title game.

Only three of the league's 14 members secured NCAA tourney bids and all three were fabulous.

What about the other 11, though?

That's the challenge here. The NCAA tournament is the ultimate chapter of each college basketball season. Because the bulk of the attention the game attracts each season arrives in March, its postseason is largely viewed separately from the regular season. The latter means little to most because so many squads -- 19 percent of the 351 Division I teams -- have a chance to win it all.

If that's true, then the SEC had a banner year. But it's also not that simple.

Those three highlights didn’t erase the overall mediocrity that defined SEC basketball. Or that Tennessee and Kentucky fell short of expectations prior to Selection Sunday. The only thing buoying the season for the majority of the season was a Florida team that maintained the top slot in the polls and won every game it played between a Dec. 2 loss to Connecticut and another loss to the Huskies in the Final Four.

The late-season highs were impressive. But the overall SEC picture was rarely pretty.

What we saw this season: Everything about the SEC was connected to Kentucky before the season began. John Calipari signed six McDonald’s All Americans. Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, but the Wildcats didn't live up to the hype until the NCAA tournament began. They faced multiple Top-25 teams in the nonconference season but beat only rival Louisville.

Their finish, however, was remarkable. Somehow, this young Kentucky team defeated Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to reach the national championship matchup. Yes, the Wildcats lost. But they recorded one of the season's most impressive finishes in college basketball.

Florida, the first 18-0 team in SEC history, didn’t experience those struggles. The Gators were unstoppable once they got healthy. They dealt with injuries and suspensions at the start of the season, but won 30 consecutive games as a mostly complete unit, even though McDonald’s All American freshman Chris Walker didn't play most of the season. They didn't capture the crown but Billy Donovan's fourth Final Four appearance is worthy of kudos. For most of the year, Florida was the only program that made SEC basketball worth watching.

Georgia matched Kentucky’s 12-6 SEC record, a year after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the scene and Mark Fox made an argument for coach of the year.

It all got worse from there, though.

Tennessee's conclusion belied its overall season. Cuonzo Martin returned most of the standouts from a 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA tourney, but Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and a healthy Jeronne Maymon weren't supposed to stumble into the NCAA tournament through a First Four matchup with Iowa. That's what happened, though.

Stumble was the theme of SEC basketball in 2013-14.

In all, four squads cracked the RPI's final top 50. Seven finished in the 90s or higher. Auburn (165) and Mississippi State (243) were at the bottom.

Every league has a basement. But the SEC's was difficult to identify because of the heap of seemingly average squads in the conference.

Missouri, with Jabari Brown leading the way, had some talented players, but a late 2-5 stretch that included road losses to Alabama and Georgia helped knock them off the bubble. Arkansas swept Kentucky but couldn’t manage any other impressive road wins. Johnny O’Bryant III led a talented LSU frontcourt, but the Tigers couldn’t play their way into the tourney either. Same for Marshall Henderson (19.0 PPG) and Ole Miss.

The rest of the league -- Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina -- all finished with sub-.500 records in conference play.

Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee definitely helped the league, but they were anomalies in a subpar conference.

What we expect to see next season: Things could be similar next year.

Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back for Kentucky. They’ll join Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein along with another elite recruiting class (see Trey Lyles, Karl Towns).

The Wildcats certainly aren’t alone at the top, but coming off a run to the title game, they appear to have the pieces to win Kentucky’s ninth national championship. Life in Lexington is good.

Florida could also be a national title contender if Kasey Hill and Walker continue to develop. Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith are back, too. But Patric Young, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Scottie Wilbekin are not. That’s a major blow. But five-star recruit Devin Robinson is the anchor of another strong recruiting class in Gainesville.

The rest of the league is filled with question marks.

Things are fluid at Tennessee, Missouri and Auburn. All three programs have new coaches who have to persuade current players to stay on board and find ways to boost their talent pools for next year in the ninth hour.

Tennessee lost its entire recruiting class -- all four prospects requested and received their releases -- after Martin left for Cal and Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall replaced him. Bruce Pearl is working the phones now that he's back in the game at Auburn. It's too early to know how the hiring of former Central Missouri head coach Kim Anderson on Monday will affect Missouri’s future, but he won’t have Brown or Jordan Clarkson, who both declared for the NBA draft.

Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey return for LSU. That duo along with 6-foot-11 incoming freshman Elbert Robinson will lead one of the league’s top frontcourts. The Tigers should make a push for an NCAA tourney slot. Anthony Grant lost Trevor Releford, who will be hard to replace at Alabama, but Levi Randolph returns. Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls helped Arkansas beat Kentucky twice last season and could help Mike Anderson’s program earn an NCAA tourney bid next year.

Georgia's Charles Mann & Co. will give Fox the same talents he had on a 12-6 SEC squad last year. If his youngsters grow, the Bulldogs could finish near the top of the conference again.

The return of Kedren Johnson from a year-long suspension would help Kevin Stallings' cause at Vandy. Billy Kennedy has a solid nucleus at Texas A&M. The Marshall Henderson Era is over at Ole Miss. And South Carolina and Mississippi State will try to turn the corner. Again.

Still, Kentucky and Florida will be the teams to watch in the SEC. The rest of the conference? As always, it's difficult to say.