SEC Coach Ranking: A New #1?
With a plethora of talented players no longer in the league (Marreese Speights, Joe Crawford, Chris Lofton, Shan Foster, Richard Hendrix, Anthony Randolph), some new talented players to get excited about (Scotty Hopson, JaMychal Green, Darius Miller), some familiar faces returning to action (Ronald Steele, Tasmin Mitchell) and two fresh faces on the sidelines (Trent Johnson and Darrin Horn), the SEC is going to be mighty interesting this season.
With that in mind, it’s time for our annual ranking of the SEC coaches. There’s a new face at the top, and some other shake-ups along the way. Let the debates begin.
1) Bruce Pearl – Tennessee
4th year 77-2
Pearl overtakes Billy Donovan for the top spot after locking up a terrific recruiting class, proving that Tennessee basketball is here for the long haul. The Vols have been one of the most entertaining teams to watch in recent years, with their up-tempo offense and scrambling style of play. The Vols were a Sweet 16 team last year, and despite the loss of a great senior class, they could be even better this year. The afore-mentioned Hopson is a top-10 recruit, and potential one-and-done candidate…something the Vols likely wouldn’t have landed a few years ago. In addition to locking up great recruits, Pearl has also integrated transfers Tyler Smith (Iowa) and JP Prince (Arizona) seamlessly into the system, and has created an air of excitement around the program. Simply put - as long as Pearl is on the sidelines, the Vols are going to be a force to reckoned with.
2) Billy Donovan – Florida
13th year 285-115
Donovan falls from the top spot this year after his Gators crumbled down the stretch last year and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. On the bright side however, Donovan showed that he’s certainly up to the challenge, banishing his team from their practice facility for what he considered to be a lacksadaisical work ethic and poor practice habits. He continues to bring elite talent to Gainesville, and the Gators should return to the NCAA Tournament again this year. Look for some spirited matchups this year between the Gators and Vols as the two best coaches in the league slug it out.
3) Billy Gillispie – Kentucky
2nd year 18-13
Things got off to a rough start in Gillispie’s first year in Lexington, but by the end of the season, the Cats were embracing his hard-nosed, defensive, grind-it-out personality. Gillispie has upgraded the roster significantly in his second year, and it looks as though the depth problem that plagued the team at times last year is solved. He's brought an undeniable energy back into the program, and, as evidenced by their strong finish to the season despite adversity, it looks as though as UK is preparing to take their place back among college basketball's elite. Furthermore, he has proven to be a relentless recruiter, having locked up a number of top prospects for the next few years. Once he gets his system and his players fully in place, look for him to shoot up this list.
4) Mark Gottfried – Alabama
12th year 198-123
No excuses this time around for Gottfried, who has the talent on his roster to be in the postseason. Under Gottfried, the Tide have always been talented, but haven't always played well in big games, and missed the tourney last year. Gottfried has shown that he can attract big-time recruits to Tuscaloosa, like Rod Grizzard, Richard Hendrix and JaMychal Green, but the Tide haven't been deep in the tourney since an unexpected Elite Eight run in 2004. The return of senior point guard Ronald Steele should help this year, but Tide fans are notoriously fickle, and another underachieving season with a talented roster isn't going to sit well.
5) Rick Stansbury – Mississippi State
11th year 207-113
Like Gottfried, Stansbury is a hard coach to peg sometimes. The Bulldogs always seem to have talent, but haven't really turned the corner as a power team in many peoples' eyes. Despite advancing to the second round of the tournament last year, the Bulldogs were somewhat under the national radar. There's no question Stansbury can lure talent to Starkville. The Bulldogs have won consecutive Western Division crowns, and always seemingly have at least one or two players with NBA potential. His team always play tough defense, and will battle hard on every possession. But they need to win some big games in order to garner the national attention they likely deserve. They'll be young this year, but Stansbury has always proven capable of plugging holes in his roster. If the Bulldogs make a move this year, he may finally start getting some more attention.
6) Kevin Stallings – Vanderbilt
10th year 170-116
As good as anyone at getting the most out of his talent, Stallings continues to march quietly under the radar at Vandy, despite four 20-win seasons. Vandy typically doesn't bring in elite recruits, but they get solid, four-year guys who work well together and play smart, disciplined basketball. Stallings' teams are typically known for their perimeter shooting, solid defense, and mental toughness, rarely losing their poise in tough environments. The only knock on Stallings has been the post-season, where Vandy has struggled in recent years, including a blow-out loss to Siena in the opening round last year. However, it's tough to knock what he's done at a school not exactly rich in basketball tradition.
7) Andy Kennedy – Ole Miss
3rd year 45-24
Kennedy might be one of the more overlooked coaches in the conference. Very little has been expected of Ole Miss in the last two years, but he's managed to turn them into a solid team that is capable of beating anyone on any given night. Despite a talent shortage, the Rebels under Kennedy have been dangerous, due in part to their quiet confidence and willingness to work - a direct reflection on his personality. He's also done well on the recruiting trail, finding hidden gems like Chris Warren. They struggled down the stretch last year, but there's no doubt Kennedy has this program on the right path. He's a coach who doesn't mind rolling up his sleeves and getting to work, and the team follows that lead. The Rebels are looking to plug a lot of holes up front this year, but as Kennedy has shown, it's never safe to bet against him.
8) Trent Johnson – LSU
Johnson enters his first year in Baton Rouge with enough talent to make some noise, and he should provide the discipline the Tigers were lacking last year. Johnson's Stanford teams were always fundamentally sound, and with the talent base he'll have at LSU, it shouldn't be long before he finds some success. Johnson will preach defense to the Tigers, and if he can convince talents like Chris Johnson, Marcus Thornton and Tasmin Mitchell to play under control, the Tigers could make a big jump this season. Look for LSU basketball to begin a gradual climb back to the top of the SEC West under Johnson.
9) John Pelphrey – Arkansas
2nd year 23-12
Pelphrey entered a good situation last year in Fayetteville, inheriting enough talent to win 23 games and advance to the tournament's second round. But to the extent it was good last year, it could very well be bad this year, as the Razorbacks lost six key seniors and standout guard Patrick Beverly from last year. Pelphrey is a solid offensive coach, preferring to push the tempo...a solid selling point to many of the new faces on his roster this year. However, with so much roster turnover, it will be hard to gauge his coaching compared to last year. Pelphrey obviously knows the league well from his time at UK and Florida, but his best coaching probably won't be seen this year with so many young kids. However, if he's able to develop some cohesion with the freshmen, and build some team chemistry, this could be a dangerous team in a couple years. He looks to be a rising star in the profession.
10) Darrin Horn – South Carolina
Horn became the darling of the NCAA Tournament last year after leading Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16, Young, energetic and personable, Horn should be a good fit at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks have struggled to find any consistency recently. He brings some fresh air into a program that badly needs it, and his personality should be an immense benefit on the recruiting trails. His last WKU team was an extension of his personality...tough, fiesty and exciting, and all three characteristics will be welcome in Columbia this year. He inherits a roster with some talent, but likely not enough to make postseason plans. However, if he's able to reel in some of the recruits in the South that Dave Odom never could, look for the Gamecocks to be a much better team in the next few seasons.
11) Jeff Lebo – Auburn
5th year 57-64
Lebo has certainly faced an uphill battle in his time at Auburn between suspensions and injuries, but the Tigers could make a jump this year. While Lebo has yet to put together a winning conference record, the Tigers have always played hard under him. Quite simply, they just haven’t had the talent to knock of the rest of the SEC teams consistently. The Tigers have lacked the star power needed to generate excitement, and with the football team in turmoil this year, Tiger fans will be looking for some sign of improvement. Getting forward Korvotney Barber back this year should be a tremendous help, and if the newcomers can provide some backcourt fireworks, the Tigers could climb out of the basement in the SEC West. If Lebo’s team falls short in the conference again, he could find his seat getting very hot.
12) Dennis Felton – Georgia
5th year 58-63
A run through the SEC Tournament last year likely saved his job, but Felton shouldn’t count on that again. Felton's teams at UGA have always been tough, and rarely get blown out, but they just simply haven't been as talented as their competition. The Bulldogs always seem to be one or two players away from being a serious threat in the East, and this year appears to be no different. His team will compete, and they'll battle teams defensively for the full 40 minutes, but they're likely to be offensively-challenged once again, and another season near the bottom of the SEC is a possibility. Felton needs to be able to tap into the rich recruiting pipelines around the state to make the Bulldogs a player in the SEC…something he has yet to do.
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