There may be no position in sports that receives as much unalloyed credit for a team's success as college basketball head coach. The power that grasping and despotic NFL types (or their grasping and rapacious agents) are always so desperately seeking to acquire--that of being coach and general manager in one--falls to a college basketball coach as a matter of course.
Moreover, a head football coach shares any glory with his offensive and defensive coordinators, who are often snapped up by competitors in the aftermath of a championship. (The frozen-in-time coaching staff of the Indianapolis Colts, obviously, comprises a particularly dramatic exception to this rule.) College basketball coaches, correctly or not, are perceived to be their own offensive and defensive coordinators. They may not do it all day in and day out, but when game time comes around there are no play calls coming down from the press box. It's up to them.
Lastly, a national championship in college hoops at least suggests that the coach has prowess in both recruiting and in Xs and Os. Teams sent home by the champion might mutter that the winner simply did it all with talent on the floor. But the coach is the one who got that talent to campus, not with a fortuitous bounce from a ping-pong ball or by having a bad enough record the year before, but through punishing and not very pretty competition with every other coach.
At a relatively young age, Billy Donovan reached a height that few coaches in any sport can ever hope to match. John Wooden will be forgiven for thinking it's no big deal, but what Donovan's Florida Gators accomplished was historic in the most literal sense of the term--it hadn't happened for 15 years. In the one-and-done era, two consecutive national titles most certainly qualifies as a dynasty.
Still, it was a peculiar dynasty, one powered by a recruiting class that, while we now know was phenomenal, no one made a big deal of at the time of its arrival in Gainesville in the fall of 2004. It was a dynasty that has bequeathed no widely-emulated paradigm-altering style of play, unless "Get relatively overlooked high school players who turn out to be really good in college" can be considered a style of play.
So out with the old. Eight SEC players were selected in the NBA draft, five of them Gators. Only the ACC contributed more players, nine, to the draft. Then again, Randolph Morris did without the draft hassle entirely--he'd had enough to do with it already in past years--and simply entered the NBA immediately after Kentucky was eliminated from the tournament. So it evens out.
In with the new--sort of. For even with that mass migration to the next level, last year's conference player of the year is, in fact, still at the old stand: Chris Lofton of Tennessee. It's too late to argue the point and, anyway, the aggrieved party is now in the NBA earning millions. Still, if I were Al Horford I'd have to be thinking: what exactly do I have to do to get a POY around here? Horford had a year that verged on the Platonic ideal for a big man. Be that as it may, reigning SEC player of the year Lofton is the experienced exception to the inexperienced rule. His four "teammates" on the All-SEC first team are all long gone (as are three of the five members of the second team) and so this year will indeed herald a new dawn in the conference.
If there promises to be a multitude of new faces on SEC floors this season, though, such will not be the case on the sidelines. Indeed, compared to some other conferences this year, the SEC is a model of coaching stability. There are just two new guys arriving this season: in addition to the well-known Billy Gillispie at Kentucky, John Pelphrey, former coach of South Alabama, arrives to take the reins at Arkansas. Pelphrey will have last year's entire roster available to him this year, a roster that eked its way into the NCAA tournament after going 7-9 in conference.
There may be the makings of a very interesting perception vs. performance test case in Fayetteville this year. Former coach Stan Heath was shown the door due, at least in part, to a relative lack of fan interest. Promising a return to "40 minutes of hell," as Pelphrey has, is certainly a welcome step toward addressing that issue. Then again, Arkansas had the best defense in the SEC last year. (Granted no defense in the conference last year was going to be confused with LSU 2006.) This year's Razorbacks roster has no fewer than six seniors. Is switching to a new defensive scheme, however crowd-pleasing in name, truly the best move here? We are about to find out.
One more thing that's about to be discovered: whether last year's pronounced imbalance between the SEC East and the SEC West will continue. The Big 12 may have harbored a similar disparity between its North and South last year, it's true, but the North at least had Kansas. Last year in the SEC, by contrast, the best any team in the West could do was 8-8. Not only that, the cumulative record of the West was 12 games under .500. That's notable, to say the least. Sheer regression to the mean suggests the gulf between East and West won't be as wide this year. After all, Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer are gone. Still, the East--with Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky leading the way--will continue to enjoy an edge over the West.
Pretty much everyone thinks Tennessee will be the best team in the SEC this year. So do I. For the first time in at least three years, though, I don't think being the best team in the SEC will automatically equate to being a favorite to make the Final Four.
Beyond the Volunteers, the mystery team in the East is Vanderbilt. They're getting the preseason respect due a Sweet 16 team, and they have a nice mix of proven experience (Shan Foster) and much-touted youth (Aussie freshman Andrew Ogilvy). At the same time, they needed an insane amount of luck or stellar late-game skill or both to get to 10-6 last year. Seven of the Commodores' 16 conference games were really close, and in those contests they went 6-1. As "clutch" as any player or coach can possibly be, that simply won't happen every year. Now coach Kevin Stallings says they're going to stop shooting so many threes and be more "traditional." The net result of all of these factors, frankly, is anyone's guess.
In the West, Arkansas has everyone back, so they're the popular pick as the favorite. I'll go with Mississippi State. Bad luck and opponents' threes, in that order, were the only things that kept the Bulldogs out of the tournament last year. Had they made it there, who knows? Maybe they go on a nice little run like Tennessee and Vanderbilt did and you're hearing about them right now. In any event, their offense in conference play was bested only by Florida and Kentucky in 2007. It says here that Jamont Gordon will become a much more familiar name nationally in 2008.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
Tennessee 8.5 86.0 11-5
Florida 12.1 18.2 10-6
Kentucky 10.7 61.5 10-6
Georgia 8.3 75.9 8-8
Vanderbilt 8.1 55.9 8-8
South Carolina 3.8 48.0 3-13
Mississippi St. 9.6 60.4 11-5
Arkansas 9.0 95.8 10-6
Auburn 6.4 97.2 8-8
Mississippi 7.9 46.9 6-10
Alabama 5.2 72.1 6-10
LSU 6.2 46.4 5-11
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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