You want hope? I’ll give you hope. I’ll give you the kind of hope which doesn’t feel desperate or forced, but which is based on real-world analysis and the facts on the ground.
By Matt Zemek
If you go through the various teams in the 2019 SEC, many of them have starting fives with multiple veteran players, Tennessee being the foremost epitome of this reality. The teams at the bottom of the SEC have less of a veteran imprint than the teams at or near the top. You are going to see some turnover in the SEC in 2020, both in terms of the level of cohesion on various rosters and in terms of the fortunes of teams in the league.
There are no guarantees in life, but South Carolina and Florida should fare a lot better next year than this year. South Carolina might not fare better within the SEC season itself, since it has already established itself in the top four of the league standings, but next year’s Gamecocks should be an NCAA Tournament team. Next year’s Gators should be a solid NCAA seed, not the bubble team they are now. (Wait a minute, is this good news for Vanderbilt basketball fans? FALSE ADVERTISING! Don’t worry. I’m getting there.)
While South Carolina and Florida might be a lot better, however, several SEC programs might regress. Tennessee is the most obvious choice. (Vol fans simply hope this year’s team makes the Final Four and removes that burden from the program. Tennessee partisans will happily accept a bad 2020 if 2019 delivers a trip to Minneapolis in April.)
Mississippi State slowly built itself into an NCAA Tournament program under Ben Howland. Being an NCAA team every year in Starkville will be an even bigger challenge.
Kermit Davis walked into Oxford and inherited some pieces he could work with. Kermit is an excellent coach and knows what he is doing, but ask Vanderbilt fans about a coach’s second season after the first season delivers an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Auburn’s veteran backcourt won’t have another go-round next year in its current incarnation.
Alabama will lose Donta Hall’s lunch-pail work ethic on the glass and as an interior defender.
SEC teams will lose seasoned players who performed crucial assignments and formed significant parts of a team’s identity — more precisely, a team’s best and most positive identity.
In this climate of transition and change, Vanderbilt could become a beneficiary of the uncertainty which will sweep through the SEC in 2020.
Yet, this is only laying the groundwork for the central reason VU fans should have hope for next year.
The change about to occur in the SEC will follow a 2019 regular season in which the league did not meet expectations.
We aren’t at Selection Sunday, but unless South Carolina wins the SEC Tournament to give the league an unexpected extra bid, eight teams is the likely ceiling for the NCAA Tournament: Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida, Alabama. Arkansas and South Carolina probably won’t make it, and the bottom four — Missouri, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Vanderbilt — are not even in the picture. Moreover, Florida and Bama have work to do to merely ensure that the SEC gets eight. It could be only seven if the Gators or the Crimson Tide falter in the next few weeks.
Yes, eight teams is still very good for the SEC. Remember when the league had problems getting five teams in the field? This is a first-world problem, to be sure. The SEC has clearly improved its quality and its brand in recent years, with consultant Mike Tranghese doing an excellent job of getting programs to make smarter coach-hiring decisions and more astute moves in other areas. SEC basketball is better — there’s no doubt about that — but 2019 did not meet the elevated expectations the league carried into November of 2018.
SEC fans had hoped that this could become a 10-bid league, entering the world of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best years and the salad days for the older, larger version of the Big East at the start of this decade. Double-figure NCAA bids define a superpower conference. SEC basketball had reason to expect it could reach that goal. That will not happen this year. Furthermore, of the SEC teams likely to make the NCAA Tournament, not many will be seeded very highly.
Kentucky, Tennessee, and LSU will be top-four seeds, but after that, the pickings are slim. Mississippi State is the only other SEC team which feels like a lock to be a higher seed in a round-of-64 game — in other words, anywhere from No. 5 to No. 8. Ole Miss has a decent chance of being a higher seed (7 or 8), but the Rebels are not an absolute lock. They could easily fall to No. 9. That 9-12 seed range is where Auburn, Florida and Alabama are likely to fall. Ultimately, the SEC’s chances of getting more than three teams into the Sweet 16 are not great.
That has to rate as a disappointment, compared to preseason expectations and the buzz surrounding SEC basketball. First-world problem, yes, but still a problem.
So, you might be asking, what’s the good news for Vanderbilt?
I think you can see where I’m going. Given the very broad but not hugely prosperous middle class in this season’s SEC — Mississippi State being the upper end of the middle class, and Arkansas being the lower middle class (with Texas A&M living just below the poverty line and Vanderbilt in the slums) — there is a vast field of opportunity waiting to be claimed next year.
Mississippi State should feel really good about this season. The Bulldogs needed to make the NCAA Tournament, and they will. This season is a success, period, for Ben Howland. The folks in Starkville should be happy. Nevertheless, let’s look at what MSU has done to this point in the season: It did beat Cincinnati, a victory which aged really well thanks to the Bearcats’ success in the AAC. Mississippi State beat Clemson, a game which carried a fair amount of leverage as the season continued. The BYU win looks good with the Cougars in the top four of the WCC. Yet, where are the high-end wins for Hail State? Cincy is one, but no Kentucky appears on the list. LSU slipped away in overtime at The Hump. MSU still has to play Tennessee. Mississippi State lost to Arizona State, a bubble team, lost to Ole Miss at home, and struggled to win on the road for much of January. The Bulldogs have been solid, but hardly spectacular, and yet they could get a relatively high NCAA seed, based on the work they have done.
If MSU is the fourth-best team in this year’s SEC as measured solely by NCAA Tournament seed, that should give Vanderbilt fans a world of hope for the future.
If Vanderbilt can beat most of the teams it is expected to beat in the SEC, pick off one high-quality non-conference win, and a few other decent-but-not-amazing road or neutral-court wins in non-conference play, it could get a decent NCAA seed if the SEC’s middle class doesn’t noticeably elevate its standard of performance next year. The SEC’s large collection of teams likely to be seeded anywhere from 7-12 in the coming NCAA Tournament means that a large chunk of the conference is not ready to join the elites.
Vanderbilt is not in a position to join the elites. The Commodores need to be in that middle class first, before they can dream of loftier goals. An analysis of the SEC shows that a middle-class life is very attainable. The market isn’t unreasonably priced. A good home in a good neighborhood can be acquired for an affordable rate.
That’s the hope Vanderbilt fans can carry into the 2020 SEC basketball season.