BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams has made four Sweet 16 appearances, including an Elite Eight appearance, but the new men’s basketball coach drawing the most attention at the Southeastern Conference’s annual media day Wednesday was Vanderbilt’s Jerry Stackhouse.
Stackhouse, who played 18 seasons in the NBA, is at Vanderbilt after receiving an offer he couldn’t refuse. Stackhouse says he “had some interviews lined up for possible NBA jobs. My mom always said a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Alabama’s Nate Oats and Arkansas’ Eric Musselman are the SEC’s other newcomers — all with more coaching experience than Stackhouse.
Williams coached at Virginia Tech from 2014-19, taking the Hokies to the NCAA tournament the last three seasons including a Sweet 16 trip last season. He also made five NCAA tournaments at Marquette. Oats led Buffalo to three NCAA tournaments in four seasons. Musselman spent the past four seasons running Nevada’s program and is a former NBA head coach with the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
Williams saw a familiar face Wednesday in Florida forward Kerry Blackshear Jr., a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech.
Blackshear said the persistence of his new teammates helped him select the Gators over a host of other SEC suitors. Blackshear, the SEC preseason player of the year, considered Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas among other schools before making his choice. Florida guard Andrew Nembhard says he was communicating daily with the 6-foot-10 forward in the latter stages of that recruiting process.
Blackshear considers Florida a “hand-in-glove fit.” He averaged 11.2 points and six rebounds at Virginia Tech last seasons while playing for Williams. Blackshear and Williams both said they don’t know quite what to expect when Florida visits A&M on Feb. 12.
“It’s going to be really weird, because I’m used to being in those huddles with him, getting ready for games with him,” Blackshear said.
Blackshear is one of the players expected to keep the SEC strong despite losing 12 of its top 13 scorers.
“We had a terrific, terrific group of kids in this league a year ago,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Wednesday during the SEC media day event. “While I’m not sure the individuals list is as strong as it was, the coaching continues to get stronger, and I don’t think it will have any effect on the quality of teams. This is a really, really balanced league.”
The SEC certainly will have a different look.
Twelve of its players were selected in the NBA draft, second only to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 13. No other conference had more than six players drafted.
Those departed players had a major role in the SEC’s recent resurgence. The SEC had seven NCAA tournament invitations last season and eight in 2018, a huge step forward for a league that never got more than five bids in any season from 2009-17.
“I can remember when we’d get two to three in, and I said our goal was to get eight or nine in, and everybody laughed at me,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Some of you that have been here a long time, you laughed at me. Now all of a sudden we’re looking at trying to get eight or nine teams in every year.”
Now it’s up to several new players to continue that momentum.
Upperclassmen formed the foundation of the SEC’s success last season. Auburn earned its first Final Four berth thanks largely to a backcourt featuring senior Bryce Brown and junior Jared Harper. Tennessee earned the No. 1 ranking for nearly a month and reached the Sweet 16 with junior Grant Williams earning first-team All-America honors, while senior Admiral Schofield and junior Jordan Bone delivered all-conference performances. Even Kentucky had Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis complementing its usual collection of talented freshmen.
None of those players are still in the SEC. The only first- or second-team Associated Press All-SEC selection from last season who is returning is Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree, who ranked third in the conference in scoring. LSU’s Skylar Mays earned second-team all-conference honors from the league’s coaches last season.
The league’s freshmen will have to immediately deliver. The SEC signed eight of the nation’s top 24 prospects in the most recent high school class according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.
Anthony Edwards, ranked second in the 247Sports composite, should spark a Georgia program that went 11-21 and finished ahead of only Vanderbilt in the SEC last season. Georgia coach Tom Crean says Edwards “can be not only an outstanding offensive player but he can be an elite defensive player without question.”
“He doesn’t even really have an idea of how fast he is, how good he can be,” Crean said.
Kentucky, the preseason SEC favorite for a ninth consecutive year, signed three Top-25 recruits: Tyrese Maxey (10th), Kahlil Whitney (11th) and Keion Brooks (24th). Other Top-25 prospects to join SEC schools include Florida’s Scottie Lewis (7th) and Tre Mann (21st), LSU forward Trendon Watford (18th) and Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James (22nd).
“There will be a lot of good new faces,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “Look at the recruiting in our league. It’s really, really going strong, not just for Kentucky but for everybody.”
Howland notes that the SEC also has a quality group of sophomores. That group includes preseason first-team all-SEC picks Reggie Perry of Mississippi State and Ashton Hagans of Kentucky plus second-team selections Kira Lewis Jr. of Alabama, Isaiah Joe of Arkansas, Andrew Nembhard of Florida and EJ Montgomery of Kentucky.
Coaches believe the league has grown to such an extent that it won’t have to rebuild every time it suffers a major talent drain.
“This league is getting to the point where it’s reloading every year,” Howland said.