Thrill of Victory

The 10 best SEC basketball teams of the last decade

Earlier in the week, I named the top 10 Southeastern Conference football teams from the past 10 years. Today, I repeat that exercise with the league’s basketball squads, starting from the bottom and working my way to the top.

The first series of numbers in each team’s first line is a team’s overall record, followed by its conference record, its rating as generated by Ken Pomeroy’s computer, and its NCAA Tournament seed. The second line tells how each team’s season ended.

1. 2007-08 Tennessee (31-5, 14-2, KP: 14, NCAA: 2)
Lost 79-60 to Louisville in Sweet 16

Future NBA players: none

Coach Bruce Pearl’s best team was ranked No. 1 in the country the last week of the season before dropping a road game at Vanderbilt. Still, the Vols won the overall league title by a full two games over Kentucky and Mississippi State, and made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.

It was one of Pearl’s best coaching jobs: the team’s best player, Chris Lofton, had a down year (nobody knew it at the time, but he was suffering from testicular cancer) and key reserve Duke Crews missed several games with a heart problem, but Pearl managed to win 31 games, anyway.

9. 2005-06 LSU (27-9, 14-2, KP: 10, NCAA: 4)
Lost 59-45 to UCLA in Final Four

Future NBA players: Glen Davis, Tyrus Thomas

LSU probably has the strangest history of any SEC hoops program; through much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Tigers were either at the very top or the very bottom of the league’s standings without much middle-ground. The players on this team made for a bit of an exception; the 2005-06 team had no senior class, but its juniors had gone 8-8 in the league as freshmen, and then 12-4 as sophomores, before winning the SEC’s regular-season title outright as juniors.

This team, though, was led by freshman Tyrus Thomas and Tasmin Mitchell and sophomores Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Darrel Mitchell. All but Tasmin Mitchell made one of the league’s first two All-SEC teams, which was a good thing because coach John Brady didn’t have much depth. Davis, who stood 6-foot-9 and weighed over 300 pounds, averaged nearly 19 points and 10 boards a game and was named the league’s player of the year.

As a side note, coach John Brady may have been the most universally-disliked SEC hoops coach over the past decade. That probably had something to do with Brady being fired in mid-season 2008, before he could even celebrate the two-year anniversary of what was probably the best season in school history.

8. 2003-04 Kentucky (27-5, 13-3, KP: 9, NCAA: 1)
Lost 76-75 to UAB in second round

Future NBA players: Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch, Chuck Hayes, Kelenna Azubuike

Back before Tubby Smith became a pariah in the commonwealth of Kentucky, he coached and developed some outstanding basketball teams; this bunch was the follow-up to Smith’s 2002-03 team that went an incredible 16-0 in the league even though it had not been one of UK’s more talented teams. This team was missing Keith Bogans and Marquis Estill, but Smith got a lot of the role players from the previous season to follow up in bigger ways, and when the NCAAs rolled around, the Wildcats had secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs for the second-straight year.

This squad did have four future NBA players, but that’s a bit misleading; Daniels and Fitch played 21 and 18 career games, respectively, Hayes has had a long career but it has been as a role player, and while Azubuike had a fair career as a shooter in the NBA, his game wasn’t nearly as developed at this point in his UK career. In fact, he wasn’t even drafted after declaring for the draft the following season.

Unfortunately for Smith, depth was this team’s Achilles’ heel – it had one reserve who averaged over 6.3 minutes per game – and UK lost to Mike Anderson’s running, gunning UAB team in the NCAA’s second round.

7. 2012-13 Florida (29-8, 14-4, KP: 2, NCAA: 3)
Lost to Michigan, 79-59, in Elite Eight

This has to be one of the harder teams in recent SEC history to evaluate; Pomeroy had the Gators ranked No. 1 much of the year, and they finished second even after being blown out by Michigan in the NCAAs. It was a team without a true superstar, and yet it destroyed most of the teams it played, which included just about the conference slate. With a few breaks, the Gators could have easily been a three- or four-loss team; six of UF’s eight losses came by six points or less, whereas every single Gator win came by double-digits.

There are two schools of thought on this Gator team. The first is that UF got extremely unlucky, and the second says that UF choked in the clutch. I’m in the first camp, because I have a hard time believing that coach Billy Donovan, who’s won two national titles, suddenly forgot how to coach and develop mental toughness in his players.

6. 2004-05 Kentucky (28-6, 14-2, KP: 10, NCAA: 2)
Lost to Michigan State, 94-88, in the Elite Eight

Future NBA players: Chuck Hayes, Kelenna Azubuike, Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford

After not having any quality depth to speak of the previous year, Smith solved that problem in 2004-05 with a banner recruiting class that included five-star recruits Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris and Rajon Rondo. The result was a balanced lineup, though strangely enough it was Western Kentucky transfer Patrick Sparks, whose shooting tended to run hot and cold, who finished second on the team in scoring.

Sparks took center stage on March 27, when in regulation of UK’s Elite Eight game with Michigan State. With Kentucky trailing by three, he launched a shot with his toe near the edge of the 3-point line; the ball bounced on the rim four times before falling through, and it took officials five minutes of video review to determine that Sparks’ toe was not on the line. Unfortunately, the ‘Cats couldn’t finish, and eventually fell in double overtime to the fifth-seeded Spartans.

Little did anyone suspect it then, but that game may have been the beginning of the end for Smith. He’d won a national title in 1998 with a team that had anything but national title-caliber talent. But Kentucky hadn’t been back to the Final Four since; Final Fours are expected at UK, and that recruiting class just magnified expectations.

The problem was, Crawford was ordinary his first two years, Morris – a giant of a man – never dominated like people expected, and Rondo’s freakishly-big hands made him a miserable outside shooter before he declared for the draft after his sophomore year and Smith never got to scratch the surface of what he could do.

As a result, Kentucky would make the NCAAs the next two seasons, but posted just 9-7 league marks in each year – far below expectations in Lexington – and Smith fled for Minnesota before the posse caught up with him.

5. 2010-11 Kentucky (29-9, 10-6, KP: 6, NCAA: 4)
Lost to Connecticut, 56-55, in Final Four

Future NBA players: Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, Josh Harrellson

Similar to this year’s Florida team, when the ‘Cats won, they won big, and when games were close, they generally lost; that included a Final Four defeat to a UConn team that’s one of the worst squads to win the NCAA title in decades. Coach John Calipari’s biggest achievement that year, however, may have been turning 6-foot-10, 275-pound, jorts-wearing center Josh Harrellson from a player barely worthy of a roster spot to one of the SEC’s better rebounders. It was a good thing, too, because the ‘Cats had only about six men who made much of a contribution that season.

4. 2009-10 Kentucky (35-3, 14-2, KP: 3, NCAA: 1)
Lost to West Virginia, 73-66, in Elite Eight

Future NBA players: DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton, Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins

There’s a big step up from the previous six teams to this one. Coach John Calipari left Memphis for UK in late-March of 2009, and then stunned everyone by assembling an incredible recruiting class almost overnight, transforming UK from a team that missed the NCAA Tournament the previous season into one that, for most of the year, sure looked as if it might win a national title.

It was one of the greatest assemblages of talent in Southeastern Conference history, but there were some weaknesses. For starters, DeMarcus Cousins had a temper to match his talents, and could go from dominating a game one moment to taking himself out of the game the next. And point guard John Wall, as great as he was, was prone to turning the ball over in bunches, and didn’t shoot well from outside.

As it was, outside shooting wound up being UK’s undoing. The ‘Cats hit 33.1 percent behind the 3-point arc for the year, and WVU’s 1-3-1 zone in the Elite Eight game sent UK home when the ‘Cats hit just 4-of-32 shots that night.

3. 2005-06 Florida (33-6, 10-6, KP:1, NCAA: 3)
Won national title by beating UCLA, 73-57

Future NBA players: Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Al Horford, Chris Richard

It’s hard to believe now, but before the 2005-06 season, coach Billy Donovan was on the verge of has-been-ness. Donovan had taken the Gators to the national title game in 2000, but after five years of not getting out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, he’d started to look like the SEC’s next coming of former LSU coach Dale Brown: a guy who could bring in talent, but not do anything significant with it. After Donovan had just flamed out with the trio of Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee – all of whom had just moved on – this had “rebuilding year” written all over it, even though Donovan had a bumper crop of former recruits who were about to become sophomores.

Sometimes, though, everything just clicks.

Donovan built a soft pre-conference schedule with a few Wake Forests and Syracuses built in; that allowed the Gators to not only start 17-0, but also helped them to learn that they could compete with good teams when conference play started. UF hit some bumps in late-February with consecutive close losses to Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama, but a 15-point win at Kentucky in the regular-season finale would build back some of that confidence.

I remember the Gators coming to Nashville for the SEC Tournament that March; there was just a swagger and an enthusiasm that fell just short of cockiness that made you like them. UF also had a rare cohesiveness; it didn’t really seem to matter to the Gators if it were Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer, Al Horford or Lee Humphrey – all of whom averaged double-figures – led them in scoring on a given night.

In Nashville, remember watching them dismantle an LSU team that would later make the Final Four and beginning to wonder if maybe this was a team of destiny… as it turned out, they were, being tested only by Georgetown in the Sweet 16 while steamrolling their other five opponents on a way to a national title.

2. 2006-07 Florida (35-5, 13-3, KP: 2, NCAA: 1)
Won national title by beating Ohio State, 73-57

Future NBA players: Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Al Horford, Chris Richard

The next season, Donovan had two challenges. The first was getting the four starters with NBA futures back, and amazingly, he did… I guess there’s something to be said for having fun playing together. The second was keeping them all interested, which he mostly did, though when the Gators suffered three double-digit road losses to Vanderbilt, LSU and Tennessee in late-February, you had to wonder a bit.

Still, at the time, you looked at this team and thought, “They’ll turn it on in March, and it won’t matter.” That’s exactly what happened, as UF won the conference and NCAA Tournaments once again.

1. 2011-12 Kentucky (38-2, 16-0, KP:1, NCAA: 1)
Won national title by beating Kansas, 67-69

Future NBA players: Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller

Calipari has, in some corners, a guy who just recruits talent, rolls the ball out there, and lets ‘em play, much like the reputation Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson once had. That’s unfair on both accounts; I can understand where the notion comes from given that Calipari’s offense allows players considerable room for freelancing, and Richardson’s teams got so many garbage points off the press. Still, to dismiss both as some have is absurd, and the job Calipari did with this team in particular should have put that to rest.

Now, let’s keep things in perspective: this was the most talented bunch of SEC basketball players assembled since Rick Pitino’s UK squads of the mid-to-late 1990s. Aside from point guard Marquis Teague being inferior to Wall, this team had everything the 2009-10 squad had and more, since it had three or four guys who could knock it down behind the arc. Most of all, it had Anthony Davis, who was probably the best post defender to come into the NCAA since Patrick Ewing 30 years prior, only with a far-more developed offensive game than Ewing had at that point.

Anyway, equally amazing as the fact that Calipari got a freshman-dominated team to lose twice in 40 games was that he took a bunch of guys this talented and kept them this cohesive. In a strange way, perhaps the best thing Calipari did for his own good was to follow it up with last year’s dud with freshman studs. If anything, it showed that there’s a whole lot more substance to Calipari’s successes at the time than the critics believed.

With apologies to…
2003-04 Mississippi State – the Bulldogs went 26-4 thanks to a weak non-conference schedule, and then lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament before bowing out 89-74 to Xavier. It was a good team, but not a dominant one. … 2010-11 Florida – The Gators were a 2-seed in the NCAAs (as was that MSU team) but had a 16 Pomeroy Rating . They did, however, make the Elite Eight. … The 2004-05 UF team finished sixth in Pomeroy’s ratings, but was just a 4-seed in the NCAAs, where it lost in the second round to Villanova.