Sports are by definition a zero-sum game. The average conference record of the SEC in basketball this year was .500, as it was the year before and will be for every year to come. If you want conference wins, you can't simply improve on where you've been - you have to improve relative to the competition. Of course, there's a second (indirect) way to go about the process - have the competition around you get worse.
It's no secret the SEC has struggled in the past two seasons, only receiving three bids to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two years and finding itself ranked outside the top 5 conferences in the nation (behind the Big Ten, Pac 12, ACC, Big East and Big 12 in each of the last two years). In fact, the SEC hasn't been a top 3 conference in college basketball since 2007 (according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings), which ended a period of dominance for the conference that stretched back until at least 2000 (with a blip in 2005) where it consistently found itself in the top 3 conferences in the nation.
Florida and Kentucky don't slump, so there's no reason to worry about climbing those mountains just yet. But the conference can't even settle on a third-best program at this point from the remaining 12 teams, let alone a hierarchy. Last year, Tennessee was the only other relevant program in the conference. In 2013, Ole Miss and Missouri made the tournament on the strength of solid seasons. But there's a gap at the top of the conference once you get past the two best programs. To wit, here are the KenPom ratings for each team the last three years:
Over the last three years, the SEC has only sent 10 teams to the NCAA tournament, and five of those 10 teams were Kentucky and Florida. With that said, the two programs primed to become the second-tier of the SEC - Tennessee and Missouri - certainly seemed set during at least one point in this stretch, though those points were different for each of the programs. Missouri came into the league looking like it'd be a powerhouse program, but Mike Anderson left for Arkansas and Frank Haith did nothing but watch the program deteriorate over his three-year tenure (well, he also lost to Norfolk State in the first round, but we're not one to throw punches at folks for losing as a two seed).
Meanwhile, Tennessee spent the entire season dealing with unfortunate close losses, but playing excellent basketball, including a 35-point drubbing of the Virginia team that went on to win the ACC. Instead of appreciating the efforts of Cuonzo Martin, Vols fans appeared ready to run him out on a rail for most of the year, until he engineered a Sweet 16 run that ended with a very disappointing close loss to Michigan. Instead of sticking around Knoxville to see how much goodwill he had built up, Martin bolted for California during the offseason.
The end result is that there are no stable programs in the SEC aside from Florida and Kentucky at this point. The third and fourth-best programs just hired new coaches. While Kim Anderson - a former Division II coach at Central Missouri - obviously knows the Missouri area, there's no guarantee his style or results transfer to Division I basketball.
And while new Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall did a nice job building Morehead State during his tenure, his last team there was very weak, and he spent most of his two years at Southern Miss sustaining success brought by Larry Eustacy, not building a program from scratch. While sustaining success would be sufficient to get the job done at Tennessee, that's not going to be easy to do given that his three best players from last season - Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, and Jeronne Maymon - all leave for the NBA or to graduation. Further, most of the recruiting class bolted when Martin left, and two more freshmen expected to contribute this season (A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson) have also decided to play elsewhere.
With Alabama and Mississippi both looking to replace their best players - Trevor Releford and Marshall Henderson, respectively - that leaves a lot of programs facing a downswing next year. LSU and Arkansas should continue to improve, but a top 50 team should fare no worse than 6th in the SEC next season (behind the big two, the Hogs, the Bayou Bengals, and possibly Georgia).
In short, the SEC remains mired with struggling programs across the conference, although Arkansas and LSU do seem on the upswing at the moment. The conference faced a somewhat similar set of circumstances in football in 2010, at least in the SEC East. That year, no one but South Carolina went better than .500 in conference from the East, with everyone in the East carrying five losses by the year's end. As Florida and Tennessee continued to struggle, it gave teams like South Carolina the opportunity to climb the ladder. It happens quick and it can solidify quickly. Five years ago, did you ever expect someone to read something like this?
"'Um, I'm kind of young,' Golightly said when asked if he recalled when Tennessee was an SEC juggernaut."
There's an opportunity in the SEC right now to establish another top-tier program, and there's no guarantee how long it will be open - Bruce Pearl just signed on at Auburn, and as we started this column, in a zero-sum game, everyone's trying to take something from the rest of the league.
Right now, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia are trying to make the leap. Missouri and Tennessee hope to solidify what they have. And the rest of the conference is either trying to stop falling or stop from stagnating in their positions outside the top 50.
Frank Martin's third team will be his best in his short tenure in Columbia. With the right player development, and the right recruits coming in, he has the chance to put together a program that can thrive in the SEC immediately, which will give him the chance to bring in even better recruits (winning begets winning), which will cause us to win even more games, and so on.
But there's no guarantee how long the window will be open, or that Carolina will seize it. This is the time to strike in SEC basketball. The hope for Carolina is that they can do so before it's too late.