SEC Conference Catchup: It’s Kentucky, Florida and everyone else again

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There may not be two college basketball programs in the country that are operating at a more efficient rate right now that Kentucky and Florida.

In the last four seasons, the Wildcats have been to three Final Fours while winning a title and losing in the national title game. Florida went to three straight Elite 8s before making it to the 2014 Final Four, and that was just seven years removed from when Billy Donovan won his second straight national title.

There is a valid argument to make that, right now, the Gators and the Wildcats are two of the top five college basketball programs in the country.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

And after that, the SEC may not have another programs that even deserves consideration for being a top 25 hoops program.

Arkansas can never seem to get it’s act together despite always having talent and perpetually filling Bud Walton Arena. Tennessee was on the verge of becoming a powerhouse before Bruce Pearl lied about having a barbecue with Aaron Craft. LSU can get talent into the program, they just don’t always turn that talent into wins. Missouri has been disappointing during their first two years in the conference. Georgia, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss.

Outside of the league’s top two teams, no one else in the conference seems to be capable of being a perennial NCAA tournament team, and that certainly won’t change this season. Someone will undoubtedly win enough games to put together a resume worthy of an at-large bid, but outside of Kentucky and Florida, there is no one in the SEC that I would feel comfortable betting on to make the 2015 NCAA tournament.

For a league that has so thoroughly figured out football, it’s amazing that they cannot find a way for the rest of the league to be competitive in hoops.

THREE UP

Kentucky: Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 team in the country last season, they made it to the national title game, and they are losing their two best players to the NBA Draft and … they’re going to be better next season? As weird as it sounds, it looks like it. Four of the six guys that had a chance to go pro this year decided to return to school, where they will be joined by another excellent recruiting class. The Wildcats will have a massive and deep front line, and with the Harrison twins returning to school, they’ll actually have some back court depth. The key, however, is going to be finding a way to distribute minutes while keeping everyone happy.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t make the NCAA tournament and they still lost 12 games last season, but here are two reasons to be hopeful for Mike Anderson’s club next season: They won three road games in the SEC (including at Kentucky!), none of which came at Auburn, and they return their top three scorers from last season, including potential lottery pick Bobby Portis. It will be a disappointment if Arkansas is back in the NIT next year.

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LSU: The Tigers should have been an NCAA tournament team last season. They lost in the first round of the NIT, and while they lose their starting point guard and center, LSU should be better next season. Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin will have a year of college basketball under their belt, Josh Gray, a JuCo transfer, should be able to step in and take over at the point, and the massive Elbert Robertson should provide enough of a low-post scoring presence to make up for the loss of Johnny O’Bryant.

THREE DOWN

Florida: The Gators spent much of the 2013-2014 season considered to be the best team in college basketball despite the fact that their season came to a close in the Final Four. That’s the biggest reason that they are slotted in the ‘down’ column here, because Florida will lose four senior starters — including Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young — from that team. They should still be good enough to, at the least, push Kentucky in the SEC standings, especially is Chris Walker and Kasey Hill live up to the hype they had coming out of high school.

Missouri: Last year was the year for the Tigers to make a run. And Frank Haith led them to the NIT before taking off for Tulsa. They lost both Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown to the draft while Earnest Ross graduated, leaving a roster that has some talent but is very, very young. Even in the watered down SEC it is tough to win with a roster stacked with freshmen and sophomores.

Tennessee: This is going to sound weird — especially if you read the paragraph below this — but Tennessee is going to have a tough time living up to that Sweet 16 that Cuonzo Martin led the Vols to last season. Jarnell Stokes went pro. Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon graduated. Martin went west. Robert Hubbs returns, as does Josh Richardson, and they add a nice crop of recruits, led by Detrick Mostella, but Tennessee will have a bit of rebuilding to do.

FIVE NEW FACES

Bruce Pearl: Auburn needed someone to bring some life to a program that has all-but been dead for the last decade. They landed Pearl, who may be the single-most vibrant head coach in all of college basketball. At the very least, the city of Auburn, Al., just got a lot more entertaining.

Donnie Tyndall: Cuonzo Martin got out of town at the right time. He orchestrated a run to the Sweet 16 after a relatively disappointing season, leaving for Cal at a time when his team would be losing four starters. Enter Donnie Tyndall, a ball of personality from Southern Miss that has come into the program and, in less than a month, managed to convince seven players that will join the team next season or in 2015 to commit to the program while also preventing Robert Hubbs, a five-star recruit from the Class of 2013, from transferring. The Vols may not be better in 2014-2015, but the program is certainly heading in a positive direction.

Kim Anderson: The new coach at Missouri was a bit of a surprising hire. A longtime Big 12 assistant, Anderson spent over a decade as the head coach at Division II Central Missouri, winning the 2014 DII national title. He hasn’t had the immediate results that Tyndall has, but he did manage to keep star recruiter Tim Fuller around, and that, in turn, kept Jakeenan Gant from asking for a release. Anderson can really coach, but with a young team, early results may not be ideal.

Alex Murphy: The x-factor for the Gators this year is going to be Alex Murphy, a 6-foot-8 forward that was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. He spent two-and-a-half seasons with Duke — redshirting his first year — before transferring into the program that turned his brother, Erik, into an NBA player. He’ll be eligible in December.

Kentucky’s freshmen: The Wildcats bring in a four-man recruiting class that, once again, will be ranked amongst the best in the country. Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker in the back court. Karl Towns and Trey Lyles up front. But here’s the weird part: Kentucky may not start a single freshman.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Kentucky
2. Florida
3. Arkansas
4. LSU
5. Georgia
6. Tennessee
7. Missouri
8. Texas A&M
9. Ole Miss
10. Alabama
11. Vanderbilt
12. South Carolina
13. Auburn
14. Mississippi State

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”

Drake hires Furman’s Niko Medved to be new head coach

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Drake has hired Furman head coach Niko Medved to the same position, the school announced on Sunday.

The 43-year-old Medved has led the Paladins to back-to-back CIT appearances as he’s been the head coach there for four seasons. Also an assistant coach at Minnesota and Colorado State, Medved is a noted recruiter.

“I am ecstatic about the opportunity to be the next men’s basketball coach at Drake University,” Medved said in the release. “Drake University’s tremendous reputation partnered with its strong leadership and the thriving Des Moines community make this a special place.  I was born and raised in the Midwest and have so many strong roots in this part of the country.  My family and I can’t wait to get started.”

Medved was named the Southern Conference’s 2017 Coach of the Year for helping lead Furman to the regular-season title in the league.

The Bulldogs are coming off a last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference as former head coach Ray Giacoletti was relieved of his duties in January. Drake only has one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1971 (coming in 2008) as the Bulldogs have struggled to remain relevant in a tough league.

VIDEO: North Carolina and Roy Williams dance in locker room after advancing to Final Four

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Watching Roy Williams dance never gets old.

The North Carolina head coach is taking his team back to the Final Four next weekend after the Tar Heels outlasted Kentucky in a thrilling South Regional final.

North Carolina is making its 20th appearance in the Final Four as they are going for the second consecutive season.

2017 NCAA Tournament Final Four schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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National Semifinals– Saturday, April 1

6:09 p.m. EST, CBS, Glendale
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Approximately 40 minutes after conclusion of first game, CBS, Glendale
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

VIDEO: The insane final 10 seconds of North Carolina’s win over Kentucky

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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North Carolina and Kentucky ended in legendary fashion on Sunday.

After freshman Malik Monk buried a heavily-contested three-pointer to tie the game at 73-all for Kentucky with under 10 seconds left the Tar Heels didn’t use a timeout as Theo Pinson found forward Luke Maye for the game-winning jumper.

These 10 seconds will go down as one of the greatest finishes in NCAA Tournament history.