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Is The SEC Catching Up To The ACC In Basketball?

Maybe, but it takes time to build culture

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NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Pittsburgh
Feb 2, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Jeff Capel gestures on the sidelines against the Syracuse Orange during the second half at the Petersen Events Center. Syracuse won 65-56.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Over at the Greenville News, Manie Robinson has an article suggesting that the SEC is intent on reaching basketball parity with the ACC and that coaching hires is going to help that a lot.

We’ve made similar points about the ACC over the years, arguing a few years ago that the ACC was in the doldrums because of mediocre hires (mostly since fixed) and the SEC has definitely made some good hires of their own lately. Just this spring, SEC schools hired Eric Musselman, Nate Oats, Buzz Williams and Jerry Stackhouse.

And that adds to a pretty solid coaching roster as you see below.

Not that the ACC is in bad shape as far as coaches go. Although Coach K, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Leonard Hamilton won’t be coaching forever, they’re all still in it and doing well. And the ACC claims younger stars Tony Bennett, Jeff Capel, Kevin Keatts, Chris Mack and Brad Brownell who are all still building programs if not legacies.

There are a couple of things to consider about this argument though. First of all there are only so many jobs at the upper levels of the sport and only so many programs that will be consistently good. Kentucky, UNC, Duke and Kansas have been truly good over the decades. In Duke’s case, other than a few bad years in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Blue Devils have been really good since at least 1960. UNC has been good since the Frank McGuire era and Kentucky has been strong since Adolph Rupp showed up in 1930. Kansas? Basically forever.

Other programs, including UCLA and Indiana, have risen and fallen. A lot of it obviously has to do with coaching and making the right hires. In the ACC lately, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Pitt have fallen on hard times because of poor hires and none have yet fully recovered (with Capel though, Pitt seems headed in the right direction).

And there are also conference foes to defeat. Kentucky has dominated the SEC for most of its history with only brief challenges, notably Florida with Billy Donovan, and relatively brief blips from LSU or Arkansas. No one has ever consistently challenged Kentucky the way Duke and UNC have challenged each other and there haven’t been many teams as strong as NC State, Maryland, Virginia and Wake Forest have periodically been, not to mention Georgia Tech’s run under Bobby Cremins.

The second thing that makes life difficult is what may be coming to the SEC and that’s parity, more or less. When you look at that roster of coaches, it’s very strong, but still, someone has to finish at the bottom.

So who falls? Frank Martin? Cuonzo Martin? Tom Crean? Stackhouse, who has never coached in college? (Martin’s name popped up on Thursday in Cincinnati’s effort to replace Mick Cronin, who just took the UCLA job).

Some will have to fail and some will eventually be fired.

And the third thing to keep in mind about the SEC, or, as well like to call it the Situational Ethics Conference, is that historically, programs tend to get in trouble.

When we look at the SEC coaching roster, we see at least five names who have had questions raised over the years. Bruce Pearl was fired by Tennessee over a scandal and Will Wade is going to have a hard time surviving at LSU after he was caught on tape boasting about a “strong-ass offer” to a recruit (that situation may come to a head Friday).

LSU is the big mess currently but if you remember last season, a lot of people didn’t think Bruce Pearl would survive when the Adidas scandal touched Auburn. Obviously he did, but it was his second brush with scandal or third, depending on how you define scandal (turning in Illinois back in the day was certainly seen as a scandal among his peers and a self-serving scandal at that).

There’s already a tradition of cheating in the SEC and greatly improved competition is going to tempt people even more.

Finally, this is not an absolute but it is a factor: several SEC schools are, well, a bit country. It’s true of Arkansas, both Mississippi schools and Auburn and Alabama is also in, well, Thank-God-for-Mississippi Alabama.

Pearl has overcome that issue for now with Auburn but it’s not easy to recruit to some of those places.

Finally, there’s simply tradition. The SEC fan prefers football to basketball. It’s nice to succeed in basketball, but the emphasis is always going to be football in the SEC. That’s just reality. Money talks, but if you’re a guy who is a great coach and you’re at, say, Alabama and the fans and media are talking about spring football and recruiting during your post-season drive, will that work for you?

The ACC has some football schools now but for the most part, it’s still a basketball culture.

Everyone cooed over Virginia making the Final Four, but it’s not like they’re fresh off the boat here. Ralph Sampson was a three-time national Player of the Year and Virginia has been to Final Fours before. This was actually their third trip.

NC State has been three times as well. The Wolfpack hasn’t had that much success lately but here are their NCAA tournament appearances: 1950, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1965, 1970, 1974, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018.

Robinson is quite right to say the SEC has upgraded, but it hasn’t risen to a point where it can consistently challenge the ACC. Only time will tell if it ever does.


  1. Eric Musselman, Arkansas
  2. Nate Oats, Alabama
  3. Buzz Williams, Texas A&M
  4. Jerry Stackhouse, Vanderbilt
  5. John Calipari, Kentucky
  6. Bruce Pearl, Auburn
  7. Rick Barnes, Tennessee
  8. Frank Martin, South Carolina
  9. Ben Howland, Mississippi
  10. Kermit Davis, Mississippi State
  11. Mike White, Florida
  12. Cuonzo Martin, Missouri
  13. Tom Crean, Georgia
  14. Will Wade, LSU


  1. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
  2. Roy Williams, UNC
  3. Tony Bennett, Virginia
  4. Kevin Keatts, NC State
  5. Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
  6. Danny Manning, Wake Forest
  7. Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
  8. Jim Christian, Boston College
  9. Jim Larranaga, Miami
  10. Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech
  11. Mike Brey, Notre Dame
  12. Chris Mack, Louisville
  13. Jeff Capel, Pitt
  14. Brad Brownell, Clemson
  15. Mike Young, Virginia Tech

Big Ten

  1. Tom Izzo, Michigan State
  2. Matt Painter, Purdue
  3. John Beilein, Michigan
  4. Greg Gard, Wisconsin
  5. Mark Turgeon, Maryland
  6. Fran McCaffery, Iowa
  7. Richard Pitino, Minnesota
  8. Chris Holtmann, Ohio State
  9. Archie Miller, Indiana
  10. Pat Chambers, Penn State
  11. Brad Underwood, Illinois
  12. Steve Pikiell, Rutgers
  13. Fred Hoiberg, Nebraska
  14. Chris Collins, Northwestern

Big 12

  1. Chris Beard, Texas Tech
  2. Bruce Weber, Kansas State
  3. Bill Self, Kansas
  4. Scott Drew, Baylor
  5. Steve Prohm, Iowa State
  6. Shaka Smart, Texas
  7. Lon Kruger, Oklahoma
  8. Jamie Dixon, Texas Christian
  9. Mike Boynton, Oklahoma State
  10. Bob Huggins, West Virginia
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