COLUMN: Has the SEC simply caught up to Kentucky?


Isabel McSwain

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to the Kentucky vs. Georgia mens basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia. UK lost 68-75. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Drew Johnson, Staff Writer

When one thinks of the SEC, what comes to mind?

Maybe it’s the storied college football rivalries like Auburn and Alabama, Georgia and Florida or Kentucky and Tennessee.

Maybe it’s the dominance of programs like Georgia, LSU and Alabama, who have won all of the last four national championships on the gridiron.

What they probably don’t think about is the hardwood.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a play during the Kentucky vs. Florida mens basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 72-67. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff (Jack Weaver)

Only three of the conference’s 14 teams have ever won a national championship (Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas), and only half have made a single final four (Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Auburn, Miss. State, Georgia, South Carolina). 

On the off-chance people do think about SEC basketball, they’re most likely referring to the one saving grace of the conference’s basketball landscape for much of its existence: the Kentucky Wildcats.

The Wildcats have won 49 regular season conference championships, with LSU being the closest school to that record with just 11. 

The Cats have also won 32 of the conference’s tournament championships, with Alabama being the next closest with just seven.

Kentucky has dominated SEC basketball for as long as the sport has been around, but things seem to be changing as the Wildcats haven’t won a conference championship since 2018.

Since then, three different programs have taken control of the conference trophy, excluding 2020 when no SEC tournament was held due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This fall from complete dominance is not all due to a drop in quality on Kentucky’s end, though the program has been less successful in the last three years, as another important part of the shift has been the rise to power of other programs.

Auburn is perhaps the biggest example of this shift. In the time since Kentucky won its last SEC championship, Auburn has won a conference tournament championship of its own, made the final four and received the programs first ever No. 1 ranking in the AP poll.

The Tigers have also beaten UK directly four times in the two’s last seven matchups.

Another example would be Alabama, which has risen to power this season as a top-3 team in the NET Rankings, boasting one of the best resumes in the country and being the No. 1 seed in the conference.

That resume includes a beatdown of the Kentucky Wildcats by over 20 points in Tuscaloosa.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari watches his team during the Kentucky vs. No. 5 Tennessee mens basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. Kentucky won 63-56. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff (Jack Weaver)

All of these programs have received a substantial boost in funding over the last few years, causing more program success and more fan craze over basketball which has resulted in more teams investing in their own basketball team.

Because of this cycle, it’s not just the top of the conference that’s getting bolstered recently either as the middle of the road teams have received a big boost too over the last few seasons.

KenPom, a metric that ranks teams based on defensive and offensive efficiency, is a website that has become increasingly relied upon to determine the best teams in the country. 

If you take all the years that KenPom has been recording this data from 2004 until now, you can see there is a big gap in yesterday’s SEC compared to today.

If you divide these numbers up into five year increments starting in the 2003-04 season, you’ll find that from 2004-08 there were an average of 3.6 teams in the KenPom’s top 30 rankings from the SEC, from 2009-13 there were an average of two teams, from 2014-18 there were three teams and, finally, from 2019-23, there have been an average of 4.6 teams in the KenPom top 30, a 48% jump from the previous average. This figure includes three seasons in which the SEC had six teams in the top 30.

Programs like LSU, Mississippi State and Texas A&M have all been able to put together seasons much better than they have historically. These types of results are great for the conference as a whole but pose an important question for UK fans: can the Wildcats ever return to such routine dominance again?

While it’s very likely Kentucky will return to the top of the conference, perhaps even soon, it’s hard to imagine stretches like that of 1992-01 when Kentucky won eight conference championships in 10 years.

Kentucky will likely be a contender in the conference for years to come, but sheer dominance seems unattainable in the modern game.

With the SEC tournament right around the corner, Kentucky will get another opportunity to add to its extensive trophy case, but it certainly won’t have an easy time doing so.

Until the final whistle blows in the SEC title game, the future of SEC basketball continues to be up for grabs.