SEC expecting extended success in basketball

SEC expecting extended success in basketball

June 29th, 2018 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Kentucky's Pj Washington (25) shoots while defended by Missouri's Jontay Porter (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Lexington, Ky.(AP Photo/James Crisp)

Photo by James Crisp

Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield (5) celebrates his basket against Loyola-Chicago late in the second half of a second-round game at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Dallas, Saturday, March 17, 2018. Loyola won 63-62. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield (5) celebrates his basket...

Photo by Tony Gutierrez

Remember when Southeastern Conference men's basketball coaches repeatedly begged for respect in their football-driven league?

That seems so 2016.

After producing three teams in the Elite Eight of the 2017 NCAA tournament and sending an SEC-record eight programs to the 68-team field this year, league coaches no longer feel the need to plead. Instead, they are bracing for a 2018-19 season that has the potential to showcase even more excitement and yield even more NCAA tournament participants.

"Just about everywhere, they've got Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky as preseason top-10 teams and as programs with a chance to win the national championship," second-year LSU coach Will Wade said Thursday. "When you've got high-end teams, and you're building off a year when you sent a record eight teams to the NCAA tournament, people around the nation are taking notice."

The SEC provided four of the top 14 selections in last week's NBA draft — Alabama's Collin Sexton, Kentucky's Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. — yet many more conference players elected to come back to their programs rather than embark on careers in the NBA or other professional leagues. The returning contingent is headed by Tennessee's Admiral Schofield, Missouri's Jontay Porter, Auburn's Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, Florida's Jalen Hudson, South Carolina's Chris Silva, Kentucky's P.J. Washington and LSU's Tremont Waters.

One of the SEC's best players, Daniel Gafford of Arkansas, didn't even test the NBA after his standout freshman season.

"He could have been a lottery pick this year, or at least right on the fringe," Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. "This just all speaks volumes to the programs that they're in, because they're happy where they are and feel like they're getting better where they are and that they'll be in a better place a year from now.

"It's a great compliment to the programs and to the league, because they know that this league will be even better this year and that they will be playing against draft picks on a nightly basis."

South Carolina's Frank Martin boasted on a conference call of coaches that the SEC is now the "hardest league in the country," with Florida's Mike White opting for "it's in the conversation for sure." Auburn's Bruce Pearl, who guided the Tigers to a share of this past season's league title with Tennessee, believes the SEC is stronger than when he coached the Volunteers a decade ago, a stretch highlighted by Florida winning the 2006 and 2007 national championships.

"Top to bottom, the league was the best I have ever seen it this past season," Pearl said. "There just wasn't truly a night off. When I was at Tennessee and in the SEC East, we had a couple of games every year where, if we didn't beat ourselves, we could win. That is absolutely not the case anymore.

"This next year, the top is going to be even stronger. This is going to be the most competitive year that I can remember."

The SEC buzz over its returning players is being matched by the buzz over its incoming talent. Five league teams assembled top-25 signing classes according to 247Sports.com: Kentucky (No. 2), LSU (No. 3), Vanderbilt (No. 13), Mississippi State (No. 16) and Florida (No. 19).

Wade's class was headed by five-star power forwards Nazreon Reid (Roselle, New Jersey) and Emmitt Williams (Orlando, Florida).

Vanderbilt landed the five-star tandem of Brentwood Academy point guard Darius Garland and Vermont Academy power forward Simisola Shittu. The nation's only programs with more five-star signees than LSU and Vandy this year were Duke and Kentucky, and Wade and Drew are giddy about the early returns.

"Our freshmen were really exposed to a lot in their high school years with all the events, national teams and all-star games," Drew said. "The great thing is that they have come in here young but with a great deal of maturity in those areas. We'll be constantly looking for opportunities to support them and make sure they're focused on what's ahead."

The recruiting rankings in basketball this year more closely resembled the SEC's annual dominance on the football front. The SEC currently has nine of the top 20 commitment classes for 2019 in football, and such a success rate may never be attainable for the league's hoop counterparts.

Yet it's clear the SEC is in a very different spot from two years ago, when the league had three NCAA tournament representatives for a third time in four years.

"We're not just a football conference anymore," Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. "We're really serious about basketball, and I'm glad to see some progress."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.