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SEC Basketball Means More Than It Ever Has

Auburn’s win over Kentucky on Saturday showed that the conference is much more than its football teams.

For more than 24 hours, students camped out around the arena, desperate for a chance to get in and see the action. The general public, for whom tickets aren’t distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis, spent $300 a pop on standing-room-only tickets to get in the gym.

It’s a scene that would be familiar in Krzyzewskiville at Duke, where college basketball has always reigned supreme. But at Auburn? In the SEC? Your first thought would be that the orange-clad crowd had gotten lost on its way to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

At least for the next few months, Auburn is a basketball school. And after the Tigers’ 80–71 win over Kentucky in front of a packed house of just over 9,000, Auburn might just be the No. 1 basketball school in the country.

Saturday’s clash with the SEC’s one traditional basketball school in Kentucky was about more than SEC supremacy or even a No. 1 ranking. It was the clearest example yet of what the SEC has become on the hardwood. Basketball is no longer a distant afterthought. And with the conference’s schools finally investing in college hoops and the rabid fan bases embracing it, SEC basketball is here to stay.

Tip-off as Auburn Tigers men's basketball takes on Kentucky Wildcats at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.

“I know this happens in North Carolina, I know it happens in Kansas. This is happening in Auburn, Alabama,” a jubilant Bruce Pearl said on CBS after Saturday’s game. “We’re a football school, but we’re also an everything school.”

Under John Calipari, Kentucky has been known for its recruit-to-NBA pipeline as much as for its winning ways on the floor. But right now, the Wildcats are no longer overwhelmingly more talented than the rest of the conference. It was the Tigers on Saturday that had the clear top NBA prospect on the floor in Jabari Smith, who very well may be the No. 1 pick in the draft come June. Smith’s frontcourt mate Walker Kessler was a former five-star recruit himself and one of the best transfers in the sport this past spring. Another Tiger in Allen Flanigan is also on NBA draft boards, and the rest of the Tigers roster is loaded with former four-star recruits and top transfers.

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And it’s not just Auburn that has loaded up. Alabama, which won the SEC last season, has assembled a recruiting machine that nearly rivals that of its football program and won in Seattle against Gonzaga earlier this season. Will Wade has earned his share of headlines for his allegedly shady recruiting tactics, but he has built a consistent winner at LSU. Tennessee under Rick Barnes has become a recruiting powerhouse and a regular in the AP Top 25. And Arkansas, perhaps the SEC’s second-best hoops program behind Kentucky, went to the Elite Eight in 2021 for the first time in 25 years.

SEC basketball is no longer just about Kentucky. And with the ACC currently having its worst season in recent history and legendary coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams ending their careers, we’re at the beginning of a new era of basketball in the southeast: One where the SEC outshines the ACC.

These SEC football powers were already flexing their muscle in recruiting on the hardwood. Now you add in Auburn producing a likely No. 1 overall pick, crowds like the one we saw at Auburn Arena this weekend and the massive NIL opportunities that come with playing in these college towns? Plus, Texas and Oklahoma are on their way to join the league, with new coaches who each brought their previous schools to Final Fours. Games and atmospheres like we saw Saturday are the new normal in this league.

In what was perhaps the biggest basketball game ever played in the city of Auburn, the Tigers met the moment. They started slow and dug themselves an early double-figure deficit, but they never showed any panic against the preeminent hoops program in the league. And though Kentucky was without a doubt hindered by losing TyTy Washington early to an ankle injury, Auburn eventually imposed its will on the game and looked worthy of being the No. 1 team in the polls come Monday.

The Tigers won the rebounding battle 27–26, a remarkable achievement against the best rebounding team (and best rebounder in Oscar Tshiebwe) in college basketball. They found easy looks at the rim for Kessler, who led all scorers with 19 points. And they took advantage of Kentucky miscues, namely fouls on several jump-shooters in the act of shooting to give the Tigers free points and rile up an already-combustible Auburn crowd. The party is only beginning on The Plains, and that party may not stop until the Tigers are officially No. 1 in the country come Monday at noon.

Kentucky isn’t going anywhere. With Tshiebwe, a hopefully-healthy Washington and the experience around that star duo, the Wildcats have a legitimate chance to go to a Final Four. And Calipari has three five-star recruits signed in the 2022 class and a fourth in Shaedon Sharpe who enrolled early to join the Wildcats for the remainder of this season. Big Blue Nation is back in the national conversation after a historically bad 2020–21 season, and seeing what Calipari has done with transfers like Tshiebwe and Kellan Grady should scare the rest of men’s college basketball.

But the days of the SEC being all about Kentucky are gone. Pearl, Wade, Barnes, Alabama’s Nate Oats and Arkansas’s Eric Musselman have made that much clear. There is certainly no shortage of resources to build powerhouses at these football-first schools, and days like Saturday prove that if you build it, the fans will come.

The SEC isn’t just a football conference. It’s an “everything” conference. And the future of college basketball down south runs through it.

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