Is SEC Basketball Getting Enough Respect?

During last week’s Tennessee-Vanderbilt game, ESPN’s color-commentator Jimmy Dykes went on a brief but impassioned rant about the state of the SEC. Seemingly without provocation, Dykes took exception to the lack of national respect given to SEC teams. He rhetorically asked the audience if they really believed that the quality of basketball in the SEC is inferior to that of the more heralded conferences, specifically the ACC and Big East. If we did believe this to be the case, Dykes said, then we are crazy. He vouched for the caliber and athleticism of SEC basketball players, and cited Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, and Arkansas as teams that should be considered as good as any non-SEC team in the country.

Dykes’ tone was generally unpleasant and overly confrontational, but he raised a fair question. This college basketball season has revealed the overall quality of the ACC and Big East conferences, which has in turn taken publicity and ranked spots away from a declining SEC. Dykes questioned the very classification of the SEC as “declining.” Let’s check the validity of his complaint

It behooves us to begin by looking at the college basketball rankings themselves. The ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll includes no SEC teams in its top 25. Florida and Kentucky missed the cut, receiving 59 and 50 votes, respectively. The AP Poll has Kentucky slotted at #24, with Florida falling out of the top 25 (small consolation for this shellacking). Neither poll shows any votes for Tennessee, LSU, or Arkansas. Dykes would be unsurprised by these findings, and would probably point to them as further evidence that the SEC is getting less respect than it deserves. Now that we know the current landscape of respect, let’s take a look at each team Dykes mentioned in his argument.

Kentucky is probably the best team in the SEC. The Wildcats have a 16-4 record, and are 5-0 in conference play. They are second in the conference in Efficiency Margin, scoring 1.04 points per possession while allowing 0.84. Kentucky scores efficiently, a skill best exemplified by their two best players, Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. Meeks is averaging 26.1 ppg, while shooting 48.6% from the field, 89.9% from the line, and 45.3% from beyond the arc. Patterson is averaging 17.7 ppg on 66.4% field goal shooting and 77.8% free throw shooting. The Wildcats’ four losses were against North Carolina on the road, Miami (FL) at home, Louisville on the road, and VMI on the road. Despite the VMI stinker, Kentucky absolutely deserves to be ranked. The Pomeroy Ratings have them at #20, but the AP Poll’s #24 seems a little closer to reality. Regardless, Kentucky fits Dykes’ description of an SEC team that can compete with any team in the country.

After Kentucky, however, it becomes much harder to make cases for the ranking of SEC teams. Florida is the conference’s next best shot for a ranking, but they just fall short. The Gators boast a record superior to the Wildcats, having gone 17-3 overall and 4-1 in-conference. They are third in the conference in Efficiency Margin, scoring 1.09 points per possession while allowing 0.94. Their offense, bolstered by a team 49.5 FG% and 1.4/1 assist-to-turnover ration, is quite good. Their defense, then, would seem to be the problem. The Gators’ three losses have come against Syracuse at a neutral site, and Florida State and South Carolina on the road. Good wins have been nonexistent for the Gators, except for a road victory against an underrated Washington team. With all this in mind, it is hard to make a case for a national ranking. The Pomeroy Ratings agree with the conventional polls, putting Florida at #30 in the country.

Tennessee had been ranked for much of the season, suggesting there is a certain amount of skill and competence in Knoxville. Unfortunately for the Volunteers, the argument against them pretty much begins and ends with their record: 12-6. A team with six losses should not be ranked at this point in the season. Tennessee is sixth in the conference in Efficiency Margin, scoring 1.09 PPP and allowing 1.07. They don’t shoot particularly well from the line or the arc, and they turn the ball over too much. As usual, they rely on forcing turnovers for offense, and when that doesn’t happen, they have trouble both defending and scoring. Tennessee has lost to Gonzaga twice, on the road against Temple and Kansas, and at home against Kentucky and Memphis. Except for Temple, none is a stinker. The Volunteers also have wins against Georgetown and Marquette. Although they deserve credit for playing a tough schedule, there are other teams that deserve to be in the back end of the rankings that have fewer than six losses.

You may have noticed that the best SEC team in Efficiency Margin has been omitted from the discussion so far. Indeed, the LSU Tigers have led the conference in this statistic. They have scored 1.11 PPP while allowing 0.87. This margin, however, is a bit deceiving in the Tigers’ case. It can largely be attributed to their three-game stretch from January 14th-21st. During this time, they beat South Carolina 85-68, Mississippi 83-51, and Mississippi State 81-57. It may sound like I’m penalizing the Tigers for playing exceptional basketball, but those outcomes really do skew the numbers. Even Duke or North Carolina would have a difficult time pulling off three straight blowouts of the ACC’s middle class. LSU’s four losses have come against Texas A&M, Utah, and Alabama on the road, plus Xavier at home. They have no noteworthy wins. LSU is a good team, but not worthy of a spot in the top 25. The Pomeroy Ratings have them at #49, largely due to their easy schedule.

This brings us to Arkansas. They are included primarily because Dykes’ frenzy reached its apex when mentioning the Razorbacks. To be fair, I understand very superficially why he argued so vehemently for them. Firstly, he played and coached there. We are all allowed our little subconscious biases. Secondly, the Razorbacks do have two very shiny objects on their resume. Arkansas beat both Oklahoma and Texas within a week of each other. On the other hand, they have a 12-5 overall record, including an 0-4 conference tally. Their losses have come to Missouri State, Mississippi, and Florida on the road, as well as Auburn and Mississippi State at home. That is fairly ugly. The Razorbacks are also dead last in the SEC in Efficiency Margin, scoring 0.87 PPP and allowing 1.09. The Pomeroy Ratings rank Arkansas at #111. I think it’s safe to say that their victories over Oklahoma and Texas were flukes.

This analysis is not meant as a final judgment on the quality of these teams going forward. It is merely an examination of their performance so far. After all, the whole purpose of this post is to test Dykes’ theory that the SEC has been disrespected in the rankings, which are a reflection of current performance. For example, I expect LSU to show they are worse than their current record indicates and Tennessee to show the opposite.

In any case, based on the data available, it appears that Dykes’ indignation was unwarranted. Kentucky is a legitimately good team and should remain in the top 25 for the remainder of the season. Florida is good but not quite good enough to maintain a spot in the rankings. Tennessee could sneak in now and again because of their difficult schedule. After that, however, the SEC is quite bad. The depictions of the conference as substandard are accurate.

* * * * * * *

A few brief and generally un-researched thoughts:

  • Okay, so I researched this one. During yesterday’s Louisville-Syracuse game, ESPN’s Bob Wenzel fondly reminisced about the 2003 Syracuse team that won the NCAA tournament. He cited Gerry McNamara, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Hart, and Kueth Duany as key players. Which one of these is not like the others? If you answered “Jason Hart,” you have a better memory than Bob Wenzel. Hart played for Syracuse from 1997-2000. I was 13 during Hart’s heyday, and even I remembered this immediately. 
  • Back to the rankings. The ESPN/USA Today Poll is a mess. Notre Dame should no longer be ranked. I understand the Big East is tough, but six losses are six losses, especially when you have a negative Efficiency Margin. I have less of a problem with Georgetown still being ranked because their losses were against Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Duke, West Virginia, and Seton Hall. But Tennessee and Notre Dame have revealed themselves to be a little overrated, and Seton Hall is a stinker no matter how you look at it. Both Notre Dame and Georgetown should be unranked.
  • The AP Poll got a few things right. Notre Dame, Florida, and Minnesota all dropped out of the rankings. I agree with this. Georgetown is at #25, which is better than the #23 ranking given by the ESPN/USA Today Poll. Also – finally – Washington made its debut at #23. The Huskies are second in the Pac-10 behind Arizona State in Efficiency Margin, although you’d never know it because of the annual UCLA lovefest. The Pomeroy Ratings have them at #19, just ahead of Kentucky, which rightfully claimed a spot in the AP Poll as well. 
  • My last bullet is for the Missouri Tigers. Both polls omitted the Tigers completely, and it wasn’t particularly close. They got 22 votes in the ESPN/USA Today version, and 52 in the AP. I don’t think the Tigers are as good at the Pomeroy Ratings say they are (7th!), but they are worthy of a back end spot in the rankings. They’re second in the Big 12 in Efficiency Margin (behind Kansas, interestingly), while playing at a frenetic pace. Their three losses came against Xavier and Illinois, both of which are acceptable, and against Nebraska, which is bad. While they’re probably not as good as Georgetown, their performance merits their inclusion over the Hoyas.
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