Which SEC coaches will earn their paychecks as March Madness looms? | Mike Strange

February is here. Football is over. March Madness looms.

It’s time for college basketball coaches to really earn their paychecks.

This particular season in SEC men’s basketball divides the coaches who sit at the head of the bench into three distinct tiers.

There is the Old Guard. Three of them.

Next comes a group of five who have a similar amount of SEC tread on their tires. They’ve been around long enough to judge whether they’re going to get it done or not. Not all will be here when the 2023-24 season tips off.

Then there are six who are building a program from scratch, establishing a culture – blah, blah, blah – in Year One. That’s almost half the league.

Tennessee fans know the Old Guard well.

From left to right: Auburn's Bruce Pearl, Kentucky's John Calipari, Tennessee's Rick Barnes
From left to right: Auburn's Bruce Pearl, Kentucky's John Calipari, Tennessee's Rick Barnes

John Calipari is in his 14th season at Kentucky and before that he was the bully from Memphis. It’s been a long time since that 2015 Final Four and longer since Kentucky’s national title in 2012. Maybe the win in Knoxville on Jan. 14 was the turning point for Cal to salvage this season. And he’s got the nation’s top recruiting class in the wings.

Bruce Pearl is in his ninth year at Auburn, with two SEC titles and a 2019 Final Four run. But his overall and SEC winning percentages at Auburn fall short of his numbers in his six years at Tennessee.

Rick Barnes’ eighth season at Tennessee is going well. His winning percentage in Knoxville is .665 overall and .611 in SEC games (as of my deadline).

The next clump of coaches includes four in their fourth season and Kermit Davis in his fifth at Ole Miss.

The best hire in this bunch was clearly Nate Oats at Alabama. He’s won 66% of his SEC games, went 16-2 in 2021 and his current team could challenge for a national title.

Eric Musselman has a .584 SEC winning percentage at Arkansas. A strong current season has Buzz Williams finally above .500 in SEC play at Texas A&M.

Davis has failed to generate much energy at Ole Miss and the arrow is trending the wrong direction. At Vanderbilt, first-time head coach Jerry Stackhouse has a .275 SEC winning percentage in four seasons.

Now, meet the new six.

Well, new five. Mike White made a curious move from Florida to Georgia. White had a .581 SEC winning percentage in Gainesville. His first Georgia team is a vast improvement from the 6-26 mess Tom Crean left behind.

Todd Golden, a former Pearl assistant at Auburn, got the Florida gig after three nice years running the show at the University of San Francisco.

Dennis Gates arrived from Cleveland State and has reignited the fan base at Missouri, where Cuonzo Martin put in five mediocre years. Gates, however, could be in play at Florida State when his 74-year-old mentor Leonard Hamilton decides to hang it up.

Success at Murray State won Matt McMahon the LSU job. But the Oak Ridge native arrived to find no roster in the wake of Will Wade’s messy termination. He needs time, patience and some Wade-level players.

Mississippi State moved on from Ben Howland to Chris Jans. After working up through the junior college ranks, Jans won big at New Mexico State.

When Frank Martin took South Carolina to the 2017 Final Four, I thought it was the start of big things for the Gamecocks. It wasn’t. Now the job belongs to Lamont Paris, who had one Southern Conference title year at Chattanooga.

So far, White, Golden and Gates have a leg up on Jans, McMahon and Paris. February, though, might hold a few surprises.

Mike Strange is a former writer for the News Sentinel. He writes a weekly sports column for Shopper News.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: How SEC coaches like Rick Barnes will perform March Madness 2023