1). Billy Donovan: Florida (11th year, 226-98)
No coach in the country is hotter than Donovan right now, after having taken a quartet of largely-unknown sophomores to the 2006 NCAA Championship. Entering his 11th season at the helm of the Gators, Donovan has done the unthinkable: make basketball matter at a football school. Having guided the Gators to two Final Fours, as well as two SEC Tournament Championships since 2000, Billy The Kid has secured his place as one of the top coaches in the country. He also has been able to lure some of the top recruits in the country to Gainesville, including Mike Miller, Donnell Harvey, Anthony Roberson and Corey Brewer, all McDonald’s All-Americans. With all five starters back this year, Donovan is looking to add some more hardware to his already impressive resume.
2). John Brady: LSU (10th year, 167-111)
Brady’s success at LSU has largely been the result of his ability to keep the local kids at home. Brandon Bass, Glen Davis and Tasmin Mitchell all could have bolted for Chapel Hill or Durham, but instead stayed close to home, and helped keep the Tigers near the top of the SEC. Brady has also done a terrific job of finding under-the-radar players like Darrell Mitchell and Ronald Dupree to fill specific roles on his teams. Although LSU battled inconsistency early in Brady’s tenure, they have won more games over the past two years than any other SEC team not named Florida or Kentucky, and have reached the 20-win plateau three out of the last four years. With Davis back for his junior year, and a couple of impact transfers in the backcourt, LSU could be eying another deep NCAA run.
3). Tubby Smith : Kentucky (10th year, 241-71)
A Kentucky coach, third best in the conference? It may look strange, but such is the case when the Big Blue haven’t reached a Final Four since 1998, and the grumblings around Lexington are that the program has lost the air the air of invincibility in the conference they once dominated. Tubby has won a national championship, five SEC regular season championships, five SEC Tournament championships, and over 75 percent of his games, yet the disappointment of last season is what’s fresh in everyone’s minds. Tubby’s inconsistent recruiting classes and slow-down style of play finally caught up the UK last season, when a mismatched roster clashed with each other, and the Cats quickly fell out the top 25. With the rise of Florida and Tennessee in the East, this season will be crucial to Tubby and the Cats, as they look to prove that last year was an aberration, and not the beginning of a slide for the program.
4). Mark Gottfried : Alabama ( 8th year, 137-87)
Under Gottfried, the Tide achieved the #1 ranking in college basketball for the first time ever, for two weeks in 2002. While Alabama rarely is able to bring in the nation’s big-name recruits, they somehow always find themselves near the top of the league, thanks to recruiting finds like Kennedy Winston, Chuck Davis, Earnest Shelton and Ronald Steele. Gottfreid’s teams are rarely flashy, but are always very tough in the post, and they love to defend. In Steele, Gottfried might have the best point guard in the country, and the tandem of Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix down low give the Tide a terrific post presence. In 2004, Alabama made a surprising run to the Elite Eight –could this be the year they advance beyond that?
5). Bruce Pearl : Tennessee (2nd year, 22-8)
In a year when no one knew what to expect from Tennessee, all they did was knock of the eventual national champs twice, win the SEC East, and secure a 2-seed in the NCAA Tourney. Oh yeah, did we mention it was Pearl’s first year? Pearl quickly made his mark in Knoxville, instituting a fast-paced style of play that covered up the shortcomings on his roster. Pearls also offered the green light to sophomore guard Chris Lofton, who repaid that confidence by leading the league in three-pointers, and averaging over 17 points per game. Pearl didn’t bask in the glow of his early success, however, as he went out signed highly touted forwards Duke Crews and Wayne Chism as part of the SEC’s top freshmen class. While Tennessee won’t sneak up on anyone this year, there’s little question that Pearl is going to keep them running. The Vols will have to replace some key parts this year, most noticeably C.J. Watson, but Pearl’s recruiting prowess will have them near the top of the league for years to come.
6). Rick Stansbury : Mississippi State ( 9th year, 164-90)
Last year’s young team snapped the Bulldogs’ streak of four straight 20-win seasons, as well as four straight NCAA appearances, yet Stansbury thinks his team is ready to start a new streak this year. Stansbury’s tenure at Mississippi State has had the feel of being so close to something big, yet having it just out of reach. Injuries and early defections have hurt the Bulldogs in years past, yet Stansbury has always managed to keep the Dogs competitive. Last year, highly-touted recruit Monta Ellis joined earlier recruits Travis Outlaw and Jonathon Bender in bypassing Starksville for the NBA, again leaving Stansbury without a centerpiece to build around. However, last year’s freshmen class, led by Jamont Gordon, showed enough promise to have Stansbury thinking about a post-season appearance this year. Will this be the year they take the next step into becoming a dominant program?
7). Stan Heath : Arkansas (5th year, 61-57)
Heath finally led the Razorbacks back to the NCAA Tournament last year, earning an 8-seed, although they were eventually upset by Bucknell in the first round. The 22-win season relieved some of the pressure off Heath, who had struggled to rebuild the team after leaving Kent State. However, Heath has shown he has the program on the right path, and he has shown an ability to recruit players to fit his system. While Heath’s Hogs won’t be mistaken for Nolan Richardson’s up-and down, 40 Minutes of Hell bunch, they did manage to re-establish Bud Walton Arena as their own, having gone 27-5 at home the past two seasons, including a wins over LSU and Florida. Heath will face another challenge this year with the loss of Ronnie Brewer and three senior guards, but Heath is confident they’re on the right track.
8). Dave Odom : South Carolina ( 6th year, 100-70)
Odom’s team again brought home the NIT Championship last year, but he is still searching for the program’s first NCAA Tourney win since 1973. The Gamecocks always have seemed to be a player or two away from breaking through in the SEC under Odom, although they always compete hard and rarely are blown out of the building. Despite the presence of multi-talented, versatile players like Josh Gonner, Carlos Powell, Rolando Howell and Renaldo Balkman, the Gamecocks never have found the consistency needed to compete with the upper-echelon teams in the league. Odom’s teams have had a tendency to fade down the stretch, which might be why they are carrying NIT trophies instead of NCAA berths. It won’t get any easier this year, as they must replace Balkman, as well as three other starters.
9). Dennis Felton : Georgia (4th year, 39-49)
Considering what Felton walked into in Athens, he has done a remarkable job simply putting a team on the floor. Taking over a program hit hard by the NCAA for violations, Felton has slowly built the roster back up, and is expecting to get the ‘Dogs back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. In the midst of re-stocking the roster with quality players, Felton has maintained his defensive style, and opponents know they can count on a physical game when they see the Bulldogs. Once the younger players grow up, and Felton is able to fully implement his system with a full roster, Georgia will be tough to beat.
10.) Andy Kennedy : Mississippi (1st year)
Although he has yet to coach a game in the league, and he has only one year of head-coaching experience, Kennedy has already proven his worth as a coach. Last year, as a lame-duck coach at Cincinnati, he coaxed 22 wins out of a team that was given up on by the administration, short on bodies, and entering arguably the toughest league in the country in the Big East. Amidst the circus that surrounded UC basketball last year in the post-Bob Huggins era, Kennedy somehow kept his players focused and playing hard until the very end. They fell just short of an at-large bid in the NCAA Tourney, but no one could question the impact Kennedy made. Now, he returns to his stomping grounds where he dominated as a high school player. It may take a few years, but look for the Rebels to rebound under Kennedy.
11). Kevin Stallings : Vanderbilt (8th year, 122-96)
Under Stallings, Vandy has appeared in the NCAA Tourney just once, reaching the Sweet 16 with Matt Freije in 2004. Other than that, they have been the picture of inconsistency. Last year, they swept UK, and cam within five points of Florida at home, yet they also lost eight out of their final 13 games, and bowed out in the first round of the NIT. Stallings has done an admirable job with the talent he has been able to recruit to Nashville, but Vandy is still no closer to the top of the league than when he arrived. Although they return three starters this year, Vandy will again be lucky to make any noise in the postseason.
12). Jeff Lebo : Auburn (3rd year, 26-33)
Someone had to come out on the short end of this list, and it might as well be the coach with the shortest team. Lebo’s first team at Auburn resembled a high school team at many times, with all five players on the court under 6’6”. He has finally found some size in his recruiting classes, but the roster is still young, thanks to a boatload of transfers since he took over. Auburn plays hard, but they have been simply outclassed by the rest of the league, as evidenced by consecutive 4-12 SEC seasons. Lebo however has managed to keep a positive outlook for the program, and he appears to have been making strides in building the program, with two very solid recruiting classes. Now he just has to show that progress in the win column.