This much is clear about SEC basketball as a decade dawns: Never has the disparity between the SEC East and the SEC West been greater in terms of basketball coaches, team talent, and the respective status of the programs in both divisions. Why has this happened? Because football is king in the SEC, and the divisions were designed to successfully calibrate the traditional football powers. Football behemoths Auburn, Alabama, and LSU were assigned to the SEC West and the SEC East picked up Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia.
Basketball was an afterthought, a way to pass the time between football seasons. Indeed, basketball had long been a second-class sports citizen everywhere in the SEC except for Kentucky. Since that time, as dollars have poured into athletic department coffers, many programs have stepped up their competitiveness in the sport. As a result, the unequal divisional alignment has become more glaring. This season? This season has erased any semblance of equality between the divisions. In fact, the SEC has developed a talent and coaching gap between the divisions so pronounced that it threatens the competitive balance of the league.
So much so, that I've got this idea: Why not scrap the divisions when it comes to college basketball?
Consider the proven coaches in the SEC East who have all led their programs to multiple Sweet 16s in the six preceding seasons: Florida's Billy Donovan (two Sweet 16s on the way to two national titles), Kentucky's John Calipari (four Sweet 16, including twice advancing to the Elite Eight, and a championship game loss, all at Memphis), Tennessee's Bruce Pearl (three Sweet 16s, including one at UW-Milwaukee), and Vandy's Kevin Stallings (two Sweet 16s). In fact, you can argue, and I would, that the four best coaches in the SEC are all in the East.
That doesn't even consider South Carolina's Darrin Horn, who has begun 3-0 against Kentucky and already advanced to a Sweet 16 with a mid-major, or Georgia's Mark Fox, who has drastically improved Georgia in his first season at the helm.
Match those six East coaches against these names: John Pelphrey, Anthony Grant, Trent Johnson, Jeff Lebo, Rick Stansbury, and Andy Kennedy. If I gave you one of those old-fashioned match-up tests, where you had to draw a line to connect each coach to the school, how many people could correctly match these coaches to their respective teams? Anthony Grant is in his his first season at Alabama, has a Billy Donovan pedigree and may be a future coaching star, while Trent Johnson, who has taken two teams to the Sweet 16, is in his second at LSU. Every other coach listed above has been at his respective school long enough to escape the deep shadow of mediocrity.
Only Stansbury has.
And even Stansbury at Mississippi State hasn't been that successful. In fact, in the midst of his 12 seasons in Starkville, he's never taken the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 and has only advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament four times.
His career record in the SEC? Try 100-82.
Hardly the stuff of legends.
Yet compared to the rest of the SEC West, Stansbury is legendary.
The other five coaches in the SEC West have combined for seven total NCAA wins in a combined, wait for it, 35 seasons of head coaching.
Take away Trent Johnson's five NCAA wins and we're talking about four other coaches with 25 years in head coaching and just two NCAA tournament wins. And only one of those, Pelphrey's 2008 first-round win with Arkansas, was achieved while in the SEC.
Total it all up and the entirety of the SEC West coaches, in 46 seasons of combined head coaching experience, have 11 NCAA Tournament wins.
The SEC East?
John Calipari has 25 NCAA Tournament wins ... by himself. (Granted, UMass and Memphis have been forced to vacate both Final Fours he's made, but, still.) Still, Cal has won over twice as many games as the SEC West combined.
Toss in Billy Donovan's 22, Bruce Pearl's seven, Kevin Stallings' five, Mark Fox's two, and Darrin Horn's two, and you're talking about a grand total of 63 NCAA tourney wins for the coaches in the SEC East.
Ultimately, in 67 seasons of head coaching, the SEC East coaches have 63 NCAA tourney wins.
That's 63 to 11.
Does that strike anyone as surprising?
Maybe it does.
Does it strike anyone as surprising when you really sit and think about the disparity in coaching and talent that now exists in the two unequal divisions?
What does it tell us?
The SEC East schools take pride in their on-court performance. The SEC West?
Put simply, they don't.
In fact, do you need even more tangible evidence of how the divisions value their head coaches?
Well, I'll show you the money.
John Calipari's $3.96 million salary is more than SEC West foes Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Arkansas pay their head coaches combined.
Those four coaches total $3.55 million in salary.
And while basketball is Kentucky's primary sport so you might expect that the Wildcats would be an outlier on the salary front, fellow SEC East coach Billy Donovan also makes about the same that those four SEC West coaches are paid. ($3.5 million for Donovan vs. $3.55 million for the other four coaches.)
The top three coaches are all from the SEC East and six of the top nine are from the East. All told the SEC East coaches average $2.2 million a year in compensation, while the SEC West schools average barely over a million a year.
Given the production of the SEC West coaches, you might even argue those coaches are overpaid. Regardless, quite simply, you get what you pay for.
Is it a coincidence that six of the top eight SEC teams in the RPI are in the East?
Is it a coincidence that the top four teams in the East are 9-0 against the SEC West?
Quite simply, no, it isn't.
The SEC East is as good of a collection of teams as exists in college basketball this season. The SEC West? It's as bad as any.
Get used to that fact, because it's not changing anytime soon. Unless, that is, the SEC gets smart and ends the divisional format. Like, you know, just about every other basketball league has already done, and just like every other BCS league has done.
Yep, even those that have divisions for football.
In football, divisions make sense because divisional champions advance to play for the league championship, but in basketball all 12 teams advance to the league tournament. So the divisional formats really don't make much sense.
Now the SEC has two options: Reform the league line-up or continue in a system that permanently separates the good and the bad into separate but equal divisions.
In the meantime, it's the SEC East and the SEC Rest.