The days of the SEC being a one- or two-team conference are over. Though John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats still reign supreme, the competition is catching up with every passing second. Overall, the league has improved from a middle-of-the-pack conference to one of the best in the nation from top to bottom. To keep up with the new standards in the SEC, four schools will usher in new coaches this season.
Though the Alabama Crimson Tide, Arkansas Razorbacks, Texas A&M Aggies, and Vanderbilt Commodores have all reached the NCAA Tournament in recent years, the winds of change still swept through campus. All four aforementioned schools will have new leaders behind the clipboard this season, and all four new SEC coaches will be under the microscope.
New SEC Coaches in the Spotlight
Alabama Crimson Tide
Though the Alabama Crimson Tide have been a team on the rise in recent years, the high-ups decided it was time to move on from head coach Avery Johnson at the end of the 2018-19 season. Johnson had a 75-62 record in his four seasons at Alabama. His most impressive feat was a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2018. Over his tenure, he notched at least 18 wins every season and never finished with a losing record. However, the negatives seemed to outweigh the positives. In four years, Johnson posted just one winning record in SEC play and a single NCAA Tournament appearance. He did reach the postseason every year, though, with three NIT trips under his belt.
Though the Tide may have jumped the gun on the firing, fans have plenty to be excited about under the new leadership of Nate Oats. Oats most recently coached the Buffalo Bulls to a 96-43 record over the past four seasons. He reached the NCAA Tournament three times in that span. In those three appearances, he reached the second round twice. Last season, the Bulls posted an impressive 32-4 record, catapulting Oats onto the national scene.
The Tide decided to pull the trigger and take a chance on the mid-major up-and-comer. Oats has shown the ability to win basketball games, but the SEC is an ever-improving conference. He will be put to the test every night, more so than he is used to. If he’s up for the challenge, though, the Tide may turn in Tuscaloosa sooner rather than later.
There is a new set of expectations at Alabama. The firing of Johnson signified a shift for the Crimson Tide. The hiring of Oats will usher in a new era for the “football school”.
The move set in stone that just reaching the postseason every year is not enough. This is an Alabama program that wants to compete for SEC Championships. They are a program that wants to excel and assert themselves on to the national scene. The expectation is that Oats will be the one to put them over the top.
Making the NCAA Tournament virtually every season is the standard for Oats. The Crimson Tide are no longer satisfied with one appearance every few years.
For the Arkansas Razorbacks, success at the national level has been lost to an entire generation. Though fans watched the Hogs hoist a National Championship trophy in 1994, those who have been watching for less than 23 years have never even seen a Sweet 16 appearance.
In those 23 years, the Razorbacks have made the tournament just nine times (after missing the tournament just twice from 1977-96) with five total wins. Though head coach Mike Anderson was responsible for three of those appearances (and two of the wins), the University decided to move in a new direction.
— Eric Musselman (@EricPMusselman) October 10, 2019
Anderson — an assistant on the 1994 championship team — was able to bring the Hogs out of the post-Nolan Richardson gutter and back into the national spotlight in his eight years at the helm. Over that span, he compiled a 169-102 record and never had a losing season. His only crime during his time at Arkansas was failing to get over the second-round hump and into the coveted Sweet 16.
Now, Anderson is at St. Johns and Eric Musselman is the new head Hog. Musselman’s career has led him through the ranks of the NBA and the G-League, and now from the Mountain West to the SEC. He most recently coached the Nevada Wolf Pack to a 110-34 record in four seasons. In his first season at Nevada, the Wolf Pack won the CBI Championship. They followed that up with three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. His squad was bounced in the first round twice and made one Sweet 16 appearance.
As one of the newest SEC coaches, Musselman will surely experience some growing pains in his first season in Fayetteville. However, he’s got a traditional winning culture and a plethora of resources backing him in the Ozarks. It isn’t crazy to think that he can take a young Razorback team to new heights fairly quickly. Only time will tell, though, if the Razorbacks can ascend back into Hog Heaven.
Musselman comes in with perhaps the highest expectations of all the new SEC coaches. His sole purpose is to take the Razorbacks back to the Sweet 16 and assert them back into the national spotlight.
After nothing more than mediocrity for over two decades, the Hogs have to take the next step. Anderson was essential in bringing Arkansas out of the gutter, but he failed to elevate them into contending status. Thus the school moved on to Musselman.
Taking over a job with such high standards will be no easy feat, even for the best of the mid-major coaches. Luckily, though, Musselman isn’t inheriting a total rebuild but will take over a team primed for a run in the future. However, if he doesn’t have success right off the bat, fans may get impatient. He needs to get the program to the NCAA Tournament in his first year for the full support of the fan base.
Texas A&M Aggies
Despite reaching the Sweet 16 twice in his final four seasons, Billy Kennedy was fired at the end of the 2018-19 season. Kennedy had quite a bit of success during his tenure, but his 14-18 mark in his final season ultimately got him the boot. He took over a program in need of a boost and gave them just that, though his tenure didn’t end the way he had hoped.
Now, Buzz Williams will take the helm at Texas A&M after five seasons at Virginia Tech. In his six years with the Marquette Golden Eagles, he reached the NCAA Tournament five times, with two trips to the Sweet 16 and one Elite Eight berth.
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) September 20, 2019
Williams has had tremendous success throughout his 11-year career. In his six seasons at Marquette, he led the Golden Eagles to five NCAA Tournaments, including two finishes in the Sweet 16 and one Elite Eight appearance. He then moved on to Virginia Tech where he racked up four postseason berths in five years, including three trips to the Big Dance. Last season he took the Hokies to the Sweet 16 on the heels of a 26-9 record.
Setting expectations for the Aggies isn’t easy. Texas A&M has been a team with quite a bit of success in recent years but has no real tradition of great basketball success. Firing Kennedy was a bold decision, but bringing in a coach like Williams feels like a home run. The real question is whether or not the school can duplicate recent successes, regardless of who is at the helm.
The league is getting significantly better as a basketball conference every year. The shift has caused several SEC schools (like Texas A&M) to fire really good coaches in search of great coaches. Williams may very well be up to the challenge of breaking through the glass ceiling for the Aggies, but if he can, they could become a national force to be reckoned with.
The Vanderbilt Commodores have seen better days. Perhaps those better days will return in the near future.
Head coach Bryce Drew was relieved of his duties after a horrendous 0-18 record in SEC play a season ago. Vanderbilt had the first winless SEC season since Georgia Tech in 1954 and the first-ever with an 18-game schedule. In his three years at Vanderbilt, Drew compiled a 40-59 record overall, notching a 16-38 mark in SEC play. As bad as his record sounds, it was highlighted by his inaugural season in which the Commodores went 19-16 (10-8 SEC) and reached the NCAA Tournament. From there, though, highlights were few and far between.
Firing Drew was an obvious decision after perhaps the worst SEC season of all time, and his replacement brings new excitement to the program. Now Jerry Stackhouse, former NBA player and assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies, is the new head Commodore. Though he has no experience coaching at the NCAA level, he brings several experiences from the NBA to the SEC as both a two-time NBA All-Star and an NBA D-League (now G-League) Coach of the Year.
Of the four new SEC coaches, Stackhouse has perhaps the easiest set of expectations to meet. For Vanderbilt, the primary goal for the near future is to simply win basketball games.
There is virtually no way for the program to get worse. If the Commodores improve just enough to flirt with a .500 record next season, it will be a successful season. Anything more than that would simply be icing on the cake. Eventually, though, breaking the .500 likely won’t be enough. Vanderbilt is a program that has made the NCAA Tournament eight times in the previous 15 seasons, with a Sweet 16 appearance as recently as 2007.
Stackhouse will ultimately be expected to get the Commodores back into NCAA Tournament talks. However, he’ll be given ample time to bring the program back to glory.
Embed from Getty Images