With basketball season now in full swing, and plenty of griping already going on (home loss to Gardner-Webb anyone??), it’s time to once again rank the SEC head coaches. There’s a few fresh faces, with Billy Gillispie taking over at UK and John Pelphrey taking the reins at Arkansas, but perhaps the biggest story is the coach who is still here. After two straight national titles, Florida coach Billy Dononvan accepted a job with the Orlando Magic, only to change his mind a few days later and ask out of the contract. He’s back on the sidelines now, trying to navigate a young squad of Gators through the league. With his return, Donovan once again claims the top spot on the list, but where does everyone else stack up?
1). Billy Donovan, Florida 261-123 (11 years)
After back-to-back national titles, it’s hard to place Donovan anywhere but at the top of this list. He continues to lure elite recruits to Gainesville, securing two McDonald’s All-Americans among this season’s freshmen, and having already landed a top-5 class in 2008. But he’s not just a recruiter. On a team loaded with talent last year, including three eventual NBA lottery picks, Donovan preached teamwork and unselfishness…two traits sometimes forgotten in today’s game. The team bought in, and as a result, secured Florida’s place in history. With a young squad this year, the Gators will inevitably take a step back. But as long as Billy the Kid is roaming the sidelines, don’t count them out for long.
2). Bruce Pearl, Tennessee 26-14 (2 years)
In just two seasons in Knoxville, Pearl has rejuvenated the program with his infectious energy and passion. The Vols entered this season as a legit threat to cut down the nets in San Antonio, and it appears Pearl is just getting started. His wide-open attack appeals to not only recruits, but also transfers, as he landed Tyler Smith (Iowa) and J.P. Prince (Arizona) this season. But what sets Pearl apart is his enthusiasm. Whether it’s going shirtless at a Tennessee women’s game or firing up students at a pep rally, Pearl has made basketball matter at Tennessee. They’ll play this season with a target on their backs, but with Pearl there, you can bet they’ll enjoy it.
3). Billy Gillispie, Kentucky (1st year – 100-58 overall)
The home loss to Gardner-Webb aside, Gillispie has expectations soaring again in Lexington, after a couple seasons where the program seemed caught in a funk. He has already proven himself on the recruiting path, beating out Duke and Florida for Patrick Patterson this season, and landing two top-flight wings in 2008 in DeAndre Liggins and Mason County star Darius Miller. The Miller signing was especially big for Gillispie as he tried to take back the state after earlier stars such as Chris Lofton got away. Gillispie also appears to have the public persona needed for UK, a role that Tubby Smith never seemed comfortable with. It may take a few years for Gillispie to get his style and recruits in place, but the Big Blue Nation should enjoy plenty of success with him at the helm.
4). Mark Gottfried, Alabama 181-108 (9 years)
Gottfried proved his worth last year, as his team battled through personal tragedy and numerous injuries to still post 20 wins. With center Jamereo Davidson playing with a heavy heart after the death of his girlfriend, and with point guard Ronald Steele out with a knee injury, Gottfried still coaxed the best out of players like Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley as the Tide battled hard all year long. He leaned on former top recruit Richard Hendrix, who responded with 13 double-doubles. Although they didn’t have top talent last season, anyone who watched an Alabama game could recognize how hard they played, a direct reflection on Gottfried. With more depth this year, and the continued development of Hendrix, Gottfried should return the Tide to NCAA Tournament,
5). John Brady, LSU 184-126 (10 years)
Yes, the Tigers struggled last year, losing 9 of 10 in a January-February stretch and ending up just 17-15 on the year. But Brady still has done a nice job of bringing in talented players, especially hometown kids like Brandon Bass, Glen Davis and Tasmin Mitchell, who could have played virtually anywhere. Brady’s teams always compete hard defensively, even if their shot isn’t falling. He also seemingly always has a few big bodies to make things tough on opponents, and this year is no different, with super-sized freshman Anthony Randolph and lithe junior Chris Johnson leading the way. The Tigers may not win pretty, but look for them to improve upon last year’s record and be a challenger in the SEC West.
6). Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State 170-89 (8 years)
Mississippi State may not seem like it would belong amongst the North Carolinas and Dukes of the basketball world, but their recruiting under Stansbury would tell a different story. Unfortunately, a few of those players never set foot on campus, including preps-to-pros players like Monta Ellis, Jonathon Bender and Travis Outlaw. Regardless, Stansbury has built a solid program, and he has expectations high in Starkville this year with the return of do-everything guard Jamont Gordon. Under Stansbury, the Bulldogs play a rugged, hard-nosed defensive style, never giving anyone an easy look. They’ve struggled out of the gate so far with a 3-3 record, but the Bulldogs are very much a contender in the SEC West this year.
7). John Pelphrey, Arkansas (1st year – 80-67 overall)
No stranger to the SEC, Pelphrey inherits a talented, yet underachieving Arkansas team that he will try to lead back to their mid-90’s heyday. A former UK player and assistant coach at Florida, Pelphrey used his knowledge of the league to help instill a discipline to the Hogs, who never seemed to fulfill the potential their talent afforded under Stan Heath. With five returning starters, led by guard Patrick Beverly, the Hogs have the talent to compete for the SEC title…if Pelphrey is able to coax consistent effort out of them. But with his experience and no-nonsense attitude, there’s little doubt Pelphrey will soon have the Hogs back among the SEC elite.
8). Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt 144-108 (8 years)
Sometimes the forgotten program in the SEC, Stallings has quietly built Vandy into a solid program in his tenure. Although Vandy usually has trouble attracting the elite athletes, they’ve turned out a number of solid players in recent years, including Matt Freije and Derrick Byars, both first team All-SCE performers. Stallings teams are always fundamentally sound and very tough at home, having lost only 10 home games since the start of the 2005-06 season.They usually defend well, and always seem to hang around in games despite usually having less overall talent. With Shan Foster back, and promising freshman Andrew Ogilvy, Vandy has enough talent in place to make another run at an NCAA bid.
9). Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss 21-13 (1 year)
Kennedy turned in a great coaching effort last year, coaxing 21 wins out of a team that was simply outclassed on many nights. Kennedy is no stranger to getting the most out of a team, doing the same thing in his only year at Cincinnati amidst a brewing controversy after Bob Huggins departure. Kennedy is a fiery coach who demands the best from his players, and as he is able to get more of his own recruits to Oxford, the Rebels will gradually become a challenger. Florida transfer David Huertas will provide scoring from the wing this year in Kennedy’s balanced offense, and few teams will compete harder than the Rebels. They likely don’t have the talent to be serious challenge for the SEC West, but Kennedy definitely has the program headed in the right direction.
10). Dave Odom, South Carolina 114-86 (6 years)
Odom’s teams at South Carolina never seem to be able to round the corner to being a consistently good team. Despite solid players through the years like Tre Kelly, Renaldo Balkman and Carlos Powell, the Gamecocks are usually left on the outside looking in when it comes time for the NCAA Tournament. Odom’s teams have lacked an offensive identity, sometimes appearing to operate best on broken plays and helter-skelter action. They usually defend well, but haven’t been terribly deep, and they usually wear down late in the season. With two high-level transfers in Zam Frederick and Devan Downey, the Gamecocks have enough talent to pull of some big wins, but another season outside the tournament is a likely possibility.
11). Jeff Lebo, Auburn 43-48 (3 years)
His record might not look like anything special, but few coaches have had less to work with than Lebo. His Tigers have been consistently undersized, yet they always battle hard and play until the final whistle. Few people would classify players like Quan Prowell, Korvotney Barber and Frank Tolbert as superstars, yet they get the most out of their talent level and never back down. Lebo’s teams may not post a lot of wins, and they may not play pretty, but there is something to be said for getting the most out of your ability. Lebo’s newest freshmen class provides some much-needed size and depth, but unfortunately there’s just probably not enough talent for the Tigers to compete in the SEC on a consistent basis.
12). Dennis Felton, Georgia 58-63 (4 years)
Unlike Lebo, Felton has had enough talent to compete, but simply hasn’t. Georgia always has a solid stable of SEC-ready guards, yet they rarely play as one unit and often appear disjointed at the offensive end. They’re usually very athletic, but not disciplined, which had led to some big wins (Gonzaga 2006), but the consistency hasn’t been there. Felton has yet to find the over-achievers in Athens as he did at Western Kentucky in his previous stop, where he won three Sun Belt Conference Tournament titles. With a few off-court issues heading into this season, Felton may feel the heat on his seat if the Dawgs don’t demonstrate the ability to compete night in and night out in the SEC.