The SEC coaches countdown, much like the league in recent years, is a two-team race.
Kentucky’s John Calipari and Florida’s Billy Donovan are the only coaches in the league who have built programs who can challenge for college basketball’s biggest prizes on a year-to-year basis. Sure, Kentucky flopped in the NIT last season, but that season is sandwiched between a national championship and a potential preseason No. 1.
The rest of the SEC’s coaches are just trying to build or sustain momentum of any kind. Some have had some bad luck (Cuonzo Martin), some are on the verge of seeing the fruits of their rebuilding projects (Martin, Johnny Jones, Anthony Grant), and others are looking to replicate the high-water marks from earlier in their careers (Frank Martin, Kevin Stallings, Mark Fox).
*A few things to note as we are ranking coaches: We are attempting to look at the whole package of gameday acumen, recruiting, player development, and regular-season and postseason success. We are also keeping in mind a coach’s career trajectory.
And now, on to the debate. Feel free to chime in at @AthlonSports on Twitter or Athlon Sports on Facebook.
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1. John Calipari, Kentucky
Record at Kentucky: 123-26 overall (.826), 52-14 SEC (.788)
NCAA Tournament: 38-13, four Final Fours, one national championship
Calipari had his worst season since 2004-05 at Memphis as Kentucky went 21-12 and lost to Robert Morris in the NIT. True, this was not a typical Calipari team, but the Wildcats were on the verge of the NCAA Tournament before star Nerlens Noel went down with a leg injury. But Calipari should rebound in a way only he can. While his 2012-13 team plodded through an unimpressive SEC, Calipari was assembling one of the best recruiting classes of all time. Calipari could turn an NIT embarrassment into another Final Four appearance or more in 2013-14.
2. Billy Donovan, Florida
Record at Florida: 415-166 overall (.714), 174-110 SEC (.635)
NCAA Tournament: 31-11, three Final Fours, two national championships
Donovan is the only coach standing in the way of Kentucky hegemony in the SEC. The Gators needed some time to regroup after back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, but they’ve won the SEC regular season title in two of the last three seasons. The Gators have lost in the Elite Eight in each of the last three seasons, but most teams would take three consecutive trips to the regional finals. Few programs will recruit to the same level as Kentucky, but Donovan never lacks for elite prospects in Gainesville.
3. Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt
Record at Vanderbilt: 277-176 overall (.611), 111-115 SEC (.491)
NCAA Tournament: 6-8
Stallings may always wonder how his team with the core of Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli never made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Now, the Commodores are in a rebuilding phase after those three left school with school’s first SEC Tournament title in 61 years. The overall record isn’t flashy, but Stallings has built a consistent program at Vanderbilt, not an easy feat. He’s one win a way from tying Roy Skinner for the most wins in program history.
4. Frank Martin, South Carolina
Record at South Carolina: 14-18 overall (.438), 4-14 SEC (.222)
NCAA Tournament: 6-4
Martin’s intense coaching style isn’t for everyone. South Carolina’s exodus of transfers may be an indication of that. If he can replicate what he did at Kansas State, Martin will have a formidable program at South Carolina. The Wildcats reached the NCAA Tournament three times in four seasons under Martin, including the Elite Eight in 2011.
5. Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee
Record at Tennessee: 39-28 overall (.582), 21-13 SEC (.618)
NCAA Tournament: None
It’s tough to find a harder-luck coach the last three years than Martin. At Missouri State, the Bears finished last in the league his first season and won the Missouri Valley Conference by this third and final year. A loss to Indiana State in the MVC Tournament, though, relegated Martin to the NIT. At Tennessee, Martin had his team right on the edge of NCAA Tournament consideration, again, before being relegated to the NIT. Martin will get to the NCAA Tournament soon enough, and we’ll guess he’ll start making up for snubs the last three years.
6. Johnny Jones, LSU
Record at LSU: 19-12 overall (.613), 9-9 SEC (.500)
NCAA Tournament: 0-2
Jones returned to LSU with hopes returning his alma mater to national prominence. Since reaching the Final Four in 2006, the Tigers have won 20 games and reached the NCAA Tournament just once. Jones, who had a consistent 20-win program at North Texas, has LSU on the brink of returning to the field. His biggest task has been to recruit the talent-rich local area, something that came to fruition with the signing of five-star prospect Jarell Martin in 2013-14.
7. Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Record at Arkansas: 37-27 overall (.578), 16-18 SEC (.500)
NCAA Tournament: 7-6
Anderson arrived at Arkansas with hopes of returning the program to the heights reached under Anderson’s former boss, Nolan Richardson. That hasn’t happened yet. The Razorbacks have had talented teams, but they’ve languished in the bottom half of the league thanks to a dismal record away from Fayetteville. Since leaving UAB in 2006, Anderson has had a top-four conference finish only once (2008-09 at Missouri).
8. Anthony Grant, Alabama
Record at Alabama: 86-52 overall (.623), 29-27 SEC (.591)
NCAA Tournament: 1-3
Grant has twice led Alabama to a 12-6 record in the SEC and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament thanks to losses to bad teams in the non-conference schedule. Grant has had the talent in Tuscaloosa with a handful of four- and five-star prospects with the Crimson Tide, but the early-season losses are not a good trend. It’s worth noting Grant’s lone SEC Tournament win is over a sixth-seeded Duke team while at VCU in 2007.
9. Frank Haith, Missouri
Record at Missouri: 53-16 overall (.768), 25-11 Big 12/SEC (.694)
NCAA Tournament: 1-3
Haith’s hire at Missouri was a questionable one, and in the NCAA Tournament, the skepticism looks warranted: The Tigers have lost to No. 15-seed Norfolk State and No. 8-seed Colorado State in the last two Tourneys. However, Haith led Missouri to an improbable 30-win season and a Big 12 Tournament title in 2012.
10. Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss
Record at Ole Miss: 152-87 overall (.636), 66-64 SEC (.508)
NCAA Tournament: 1-1
Kennedy finally got Ole Miss out of the NIT (five times in six season) and into the NCAA Tournament last season. He just had to deal with Marshall Henderson-related headaches to do it. The Rebels reached the NCAA Tournament five times in six seasons under Rod Barnes from 1997-2002, but overall this is not a program accustomed to postseason appearances. At least in that department, Kennedy is ahead of the curve.
11. Mark Fox, Georgia
Record at Georgia: 65-63 overall (.508), 28-38 SEC (.424)
NCAA Tournament: 2-4
A peculiar fit for Georgia to begin with, Fox has dealt with a pair of unexpected early departures (Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins) to the NBA Draft early in his tenure with the Bulldogs. Basketball isn’t a point of pride at Georgia, but three losing seasons in four years under Fox has to be a concern. Before Georgia, Fox won at least a share of four consecutive WAC titles at Nevada.
12. Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M
Record at Texas A&M: 32-33 overall (.492), 11-26 Big 12/SEC (.297)
NCAA Tournament: 1-2
A successful coach in the low-major ranks at Southeastern Louisiana and Murray State, Kennedy has struggled in two years at Texas A&M. His best season was in 2010 when Murray State went 31-5 and defeated a fourth-seeded Vanderbilt team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
13. Rick Ray, Mississippi State
Record (all at Mississippi State): 10-22 overall (.313), 4-14 SEC (.222)
NCAA Tournament: None
Rick Stansbury left little for Ray at Mississippi State. Ray, a former assistant at Purdue and Clemson, rarely played with a full scholarship roster in his first season in Starkville.
14. Tony Barbee, Auburn
Record at Auburn: 35-59 overall (.372), 12-38 SEC (.240)
NCAA Tournament: 0-1
The former Calipari assistant has not had Calipari results, to state the obvious. Last season’s 9-23 season was Auburn’s worst season since going 6-20 in 1972-73.