Program Tiers: SEC
Our recent piece on schools that should be perennial powers received a good deal of feedback, so we figured it's the perfect time to capitalize and bring more of the same content.
All jobs aren't created equal. There are some schools that have more funding, more prestige and better resources at their disposal to make recruiting (and, by extension, winning) more sustainable. As an attempt at pegging which jobs in the major conferences are best and which are most difficult based on those factors, we developed a seven-prong tier system, ranging from the perennial blue bloods to the spots with annual uphill battles.
A good coach can raise their program a tier, perhaps even two if there's longevity involved. These rankings fluctuate slightly as a result of the man in the head chair, but are largely dependent on factors outside of who the boss is right now.
The pursuit of Kentucky is on. In what is known as a football conference, the ascent of the SEC the last few years has been rapid. There are plenty of schools now investing in major hoops programs, hoping to jockey for position as the next-best landing spot outside of Lexington. The back-and-forth nature of all these jobs prevents one spot from emerging as a challenge, but with rich athletic departments from football and a local culture of spending for athletic success, there are very few bad spots in the league.
Tier #1 - Bluebloods
Kentucky - It's Lexington. Rupp Arena. Calipari. They may have years like this one every now and again, but it never is enough to keep recruits away. It's one of the five best jobs in the country and it doesn't need a long explanation for why.
Tier #2 - Consistent and Historic
None - The lack of historical success outside of Lexington catches up to the league here. That's why the Wildcats are always favorites: there isn't one school that is consistently on their level to push them.
Tier #3 - Have it Rolling Right Now
Florida - Billy Donovan really started something special in Gainesville, and it's carried through to today. The Gators have a massive athletic department budget, a ton of exposure through the media, have seen national success be somewhat sustained and excellent facilities. They've positioned themselves to be the best #2 option in the league, although recently Mike White has underachieved compared to where they should be. Fan support isn't there for hoops, even after all their winning, so the lack of passion likely caps them at this tier, even if they're a Final Four team.
Tier #4 - Should Be in Tier #2
None - Lack of history is evident. It's why Tier 2 is empty, and will be why Tier 4 is the same.
Tier #5 - You Can Sustain Winning There
Tennessee - The local talent is solid, though unspectacular. The support as passionate as you find in the SEC. Athletics matter and their budget is pretty large. Both Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes have brought fairly consistent success and proven it can be sustained. But there isn't much else that clearly sets Tennessee apart from the rest of the league. It's a good job in almost every way but not a great one in any regard. Proximity to a ton of recruiting avenues helps.
LSU - Will Wade is doing things right in Baton Rouge. Sell exposure, NBA pedigree and combine enough local talent (Louisiana is a sleeper for in-state recruiting) with out-of-state kids who can be swindled into the one-and-done pathway. That's the recipe for success here. Hopefully the donors will renovate facilities soon. But a one-and-done mentality prevents fans from getting attached, so the Tigers are likely to see hoops take a firm backseat to the ole pigskin. Plus, it's imperative that the hoops coach stays out of NCAA investigations as to not raise the red flags on their cash cow: football.
Alabama - Speaking of football, I don't buy into the notion that this is only a football school. Outrageous resources, great local devotion (everyone in-state goes to 'Bama) and a solid history of developing NBA-level talent should get the Crimson Tide to be quick risers on this list. Nate Oats is doing things the right way down there: give them a definitive style of play to hang their hat on. He'll devour any in-state guys he thinks fits, and be attractive enough to win battles for anyone else. Just don't draw too much ire from the NCAA by cheating and he'll be ok!
Arkansas - There's some real history in Fayetteville, despite the lack of sustained success over the last 20 years. Bud Walton is one of the more electric atmospheres in the conference, and if there's one spot in this tier that firmly hasn't been an entrenched football spot, it's here. That helps them really fend off anyone for in-state talent. The fan base is absolutely rabid for hoops and wants success, so the athletic department will pay. One National Title isn't enough to vault them to a historic tier, nor enough to hang their hats on recruiting-wise when it happened ten years before current recruits were born.
Georgia - At some point, the term "it's a football school" becomes code for "there's no reason we can't win big other than that we haven't". Atlanta, and the plethora of in-state talent, make Georgia a gold mine for SEC-level production. There shouldn't be much of an issue fending off Tech, and the craze for their Dawgs on the football field creates enough allegiance to Athens for the school to cash in on. Somehow, they haven't. They're one facility upgrade and nailing a coaching hire from upping themselves into the Florida-tier. I'm not sure why Georgia hasn't won bigger, which is why they're here.
Texas A&M - Location can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, A&M has the richest local talent base of any SEC school, perhaps with the exception of Georgia. But there's a ton of competition to fend off, with Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, and solid programs developing elsewhere. Try swinging them away to a conference that doesn't play their in-state rivals. There's been a renewed commitment to hoops in College Station and it's actually an awesome game environment, but there's little hoops history and it just feels like they will never land the top in-state guys.
Missouri - The odd-ball in the SEC, Missouri should be a solid hoops school. St. Louis is a good basketball city and they've got some really, really nice facilities. But they travel far and can't consistently get Kansas City to swing from Jayhawk country. Even with all their advantages, the lack of SEC tradition has hurt them. It was a good financial move to switch conferences, but they haven't found their niche just yet.
Tier #6 - In Someone Else's Shadow
Auburn - I don't care what anyone says, the Tigers are in the shadow of the Crimson Tide. While 'Bama hasn't been a basketball powerhouse, it takes a little more out-of-state charm to win here. Pearl has the right plan, getting JUCO and the occasional five-star to town. But he's doing as good of a job as anyone can in Montgomery. Pearl's run to the Final Four has been nice, but it's a little too early to call what he's built sustained success. Prior to his era, there really hasn't been any there.
South Carolina - The smallest state in the SEC doesn't produce much home-grown talent... and good luck going up north to beat away Duke, Carolina and NC State for highly-touted recruits. It's a blue-chipper job without a doubt. There's a cool college town and some southern charm to sell for the Gamecocks, but this has never been a power before. They're caught in the difficult location recruiting-wise and that hurts them more than anything they lack on-campus or administratively.
Ole Miss - Here's a sad fact for both Ole Miss and Mississippi State, who is next on the list: the state is not in a great spot. One of the poorest in the nation, Mississippi has made several budget changes over the last 15 years that negatively impact athletics. Combine that with a really poor base of local talent in comparison to their surrounding states and this isn't an easy place to win. Expectations are low, history nonexistent and facilities manageable. The right guy can exceed expectations and get them to the tourney.
Mississippi State - While many of the same factors for Ole Miss apply, Starkville is a more difficult place to sell than Oxford. It's a pretty miserable spot to try and recruit to. They've done remarkably well to leverage a strong practice facility to their advantage recently, though every other athletic facility suffers. As the rest of the SEC continues to figure out how to win, both Mississippi schools fall farther behind the competition.
Vanderbilt - There's a decent amount of tradition in Nashville for the Commodores. With the academic prestige, the institution caters to a different crowd than the rest of the SEC, which is something that sets them apart in a positive way. But there isn't much of a consistent recruiting base here, despite some local talent. Tennessee outshines the school in-state outside of Nashville, and the league's most budgetarily-strapped location catches up to you quickly when trying to attract kids from all over.
Tier #7 - An Uphill Battle
None - The SEC doesn't have a bad job for a power-five school. They only have jobs that are not as fortunate as their peers in some way. But being in the SEC, where there's always talent in the south and no major powers outside of Kentucky, has its benefits. Overachieve one out of every few years, make an NCAA tournament and stay in the mix with competitor schools and you can stay in the league for a long time.
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Assistant Men's Basketball Coach, Dickinson College.