The Southeastern Conference doesn’t have a plan only to dominate in football. The league’s leadership believes a monopoly, like its 12 of the last 16 national gridiron championships, including the last three with a trio of different schools, can be achieved across the board.
A small but important step took place Monday, with Auburn men’s basketball being ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history after a one-week run at No. 2 and a dazzling defeat of Kentucky on Saturday.
The Tigers secured 45 of 61 first-place votes to be at college basketball’s helm. The poll began with the 1948-49 season and Auburn became the sixth school to achieve that feat under the SEC banner.
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee have done it under a previous conference construction. Two current SEC squads, Missouri and South Carolina, also reached the top spot, but did so as members of what are now the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conferences.
So what’s the big deal about adding one more team to the ledger? Vanderbilt was once ranked No. 2 during the 1965-66 season, hasn’t been ranked since 2016, and has rarely moved any needle in the sport since the turn of the century. It’s bigger than a majority of the SEC’s roster having now done it. It’s another data point for further SEC investment into the sport.
SEC men’s basketball at times has been an afterthought. Development per the competition in women’s basketball, baseball and softball have eclipsed what’s been done at most schools’ second-biggest-revenue-driving sport. Only two SEC schools have won a national championship. Kentucky has 8, but has only won once since 1999. Florida’s double-up in 2006 and 2007 represent the only non-Wildcats net cutting in conference history. Far from acclaimed.
It’s not like the SEC doesn’t have elite coaches. John Calipari is a living legend responsible for its last title. Alabama’s Nate Oats has turned the Crimson Tide into a nationally-recognized power with no end in sight thanks to his success on the recruiting trail. Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams has won everywhere he’s been and only needed a few years to do that in College Station. How about the turnaround in Fayetteville from Eric Musselman, and Rick Barnes keeping things consistent on Rocky Top? Pretty great.
That brings us back to Auburn and Bruce Pearl. The 61-year-old former Tennessee head coach can coach his tuchus off. That’s not debatable. His past despicable actions aren’t debatable either, but shouldn’t affect college basketball’s acceptance of the Tigers as the top team in the land.
The investment on The Plains to build Auburn Arena is seeing some huge payoffs now, with its rambunctious crowds that feel right on top of you during games, more akin to European soccer or professional wrestling. How about Olympic gold medalist Suni Lee, who now also competes at Auburn Arena for the school’s gymnastics team? The Tigers, as a whole, have something figured out.
Hopefully Auburn’s placement atop college basketball, regardless of how long it stays, can be more than just an afterthought. Nothing will ever challenge the conference’s stranglehold on football. But wouldn’t the SEC want to be more dominant in this sphere? Maybe the diehard fan bases that crave Mississippi State baseball or Florida softball can share the recipe to successful engagement.
SEC men’s basketball isn’t in the doldrums. It could be a heck of a lot better. Just look at the assembly line of amazing coaches on the women’s side. Dawn Staley, Kim Mulkey, Gary Blair, Mike Neighbors, Robin Pingeton, Kellie Harper, Joni Taylor. They’re all insanely talented. The amount of national titles from their programs is expected to skyrocket over the next decade, too.
For now, Auburn travels to face Missouri on Tuesday night for its first game as the No. 1 team in college basketball. A ranked Auburn team lost the last time it visited Columbia. If history repeats itself, the more likely the elevation of the conference’s national profile gets lost in the shuffle along with it.
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