Can the Southeastern Conference ride the coattails of a number of elite coaches back to national prominence?
Midway through this season the SEC is showing signs that the recent hires of named coaches is starting to pay off.
Rick Barnes, Ben Howland, Avery Johnson and Bruce Pearl are the four most highly recognizable hires in the past few years for the much maligned conference. The SEC has only sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament in three of the past four years. The direction of a number of the the SEC programs suggest that the underperforming league is well on its way to rivaling the elites of college basketball conferences.
Thru seven conference games the SEC sits with six teams within the RPI top 50 and nine within NCAA bubble striking distance in the top 75. That ranks it only behind the ACC and Big Ten in both categories. Four SEC teams appear to be near certainty of making the field of 66 with RPI No. 3 Kentucky (17-2), No. 11 Florida (14-5), No. 20 South Carolina (14-4) and No. 33 Arkansas (15-4). No. 45 Georgia and No. 46 Mississippi are well within reach of an NCAA birth while No. 58 Vanderbilt, No. 61 Tennessee and No. 70 Auburn have significant work to do to enter the conversation but none the less have respectable RPI rankings.
One other sign the SEC is building a foundation that will last is the production levels of the young players in the conference. Only one of the top five conference scorers is a senior while many teams showing a high level of success are doing it with a majority of underclassmen filling up the stat sheets.
It goes without saying that Kentucky is a young team but it doesn't even have the roster with the most underclassmen production. Mississippi State is getting 84.5 percent of its scoring from underclassmen while Kentucky follows with 81.7 percent. Missouri (79.9 percent), Texas A&M (76.7), Tennessee (70.4) and Auburn (68.6) all return significant pieces of their rosters. With the exception of Missouri, all those teams returning significant production have already shown some degree of success.
Teams that aren't getting a lot of production from underclassmen heading into the offseason include Georgia that will return only 30.9 percent of its scoring. Ole Miss (23 percent), Vanderbilt (20.3) and Arkansas (7.1) must rebuild their rosters quickly if they want to keep up with the upward trend of the league.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of all programs and many teams within the SEC are excelling in recruiting rankings as well. Scout has five SEC teams ranked in the top 20 for the 2017 class. No surprise Kentucky is No. 1 but after that the surprises begin. Johnson has the Alabama Crimson Tide at No. 5 with Texas A&M at No. 15. Howland continues his hot recruiting and has the Mississippi Bulldogs at No. 18. Pearl has Auburn at No. 19.
Outside of Kentucky these recruiting rankings show that the recent coaching hires are making an impact on the recruiting trial for programs that traditionally don't win battles for highly ranked players.
Exactly what the future holds for SEC hoops may be hard to predict for the individual programs but it does appear its stock as a whole is on the rise. Recently the SEC has only enjoyed three NCAA bids per year but the battle for more bids in the coming years is heating up. Some not-so-familiar faces are entering the discussion for national prominence and that is a good thing for the SEC.