See that man in the cover image?
That’s Hugh Durham, selected for induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame last week. We assessed his career, noting one specific statistic which separates him from all his brothers — past and present — in the coaching fraternity.
Bundled inside that statistic (go read the piece) is the simple fact that Durham coached Georgia to its only Final Four in 1983. The image above is taken from that Final Four in Albuquerque. Georgia, like Mississippi State (in 1996 under Richard Williams), is a one-time Final Four visitor.
This leads into our conference based history of the Final Four. The lead item here is not how many trips the ACC or Big East or Big Ten have made, but how few the SEC has managed to make.
The one-time visits by Georgia and Mississippi State give the conference six Final Four teams. Given the recent additions of Missouri and Texas A&M, however, the SEC is the only Power 5 conference with a majority of teams which have NOT reached the Final Four. Six teams have made it, but eight have not. Since Georgia and Mississippi State have made the Big Show only once, the SEC can put forth only four teams which have made more than one Final Four, easily the lowest number among the Power 5 conferences.
What’s just as conspicuous in an examination of Final Four bids over time is that if you account for conference realignment — and Final Four bids achieved at specific points in history — SEC member schools other than Kentucky suffered to an extraordinary extent.
Get this: Arkansas made two Final Fours in the 1940s. Obviously, though, that was before the Razorbacks moved to the SEC. In light of that fact, the non-Kentucky portion of the SEC claimed one Final Four bid before 1981.
ONE. THAT’S IT. ONE.
Arkansas made four Final Fours before joining the SEC in the 1991-1992 season. Of current SEC member schools who made Final Fours as SEC members before 1981, the list consists of one team and one appearance: LSU in 1953. Georgia, Mississippi State, and Florida had not yet cracked the code. Only when LSU returned to the Final Four in 1981 did business begin to pick up.
Georgia (1983) and LSU (1986) gave the league two more non-Kentucky Final Four excursions in the 1980s. In the 1990s (not counting Arkansas’s 1990 Final Four, which was still produced in the Southwest Conference), the SEC accumulated four non-Kentucky Final Fours: Florida (1994), MSU (1996), and Arkansas (1994 and 1995). When one realizes how good Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Georgia, and South Carolina all became in the mid-1990s, that decade represents the best period in SEC basketball history when viewed solely through the lens of quality depth. The mid-1980s, with Sonny Smith’s Auburn teams and Wimp Sanderson’s Alabama teams, has a place in that conversation.
In the 2000s, the SEC wasn’t as deep as it had been in the mid-1990s, but the league found a second superpower to join Kentucky. Big Blue is an old-money colossus, but Florida — under Billy Donovan — became the new-money heavyweight in the league. The Gators won back-to-back national titles to put themselves in select company among college basketball champions over the course of NCAA tournament history. Three Final Fours in the decade enabled Florida — a program which had not made a single NCAA tournament appearance before 1987 — to become the third-most successful Final Four program in the league, the second-most successful among non-Kentucky programs (next to Arkansas).
The good news was that the SEC was no longer about Kentucky and only Kentucky.
The bad news: Where was every other non-Florida program? The SEC grabbed only one non-Florida Final Four ticket in the decade, LSU’s 2006 run.
Florida and Kentucky have dominated the current decade, both making the Elite Eight or better a combined nine times this decade (5 for UK, 4 for UF), but with Billy D now in the NBA, it’s just Kentucky again. Texas A&M had a nice little season in 2016, but the Aggies should have lost in the round of 32, and got eviscerated in the Sweet 16 by Oklahoma.
Final Four week is a week to celebrate the four teams which have reached college basketball’s final weekend, a little April Anxiety at the end of March Madness.
In the SEC, however, notions of anxiety and madness are real, not fun. These celebrations of college basketball are all too often viewed as spectators for non-Kentucky, non-Florida schools… not as participants.