Sidelines with John Clay

John Calipari is staying, and his SEC competition is getting tougher

Just because John Calipari has agreed to be Kentucky basketball’s coach for life doesn’t mean his task of total world domination is going to be any easier.

Just look at what’s happening in his own backyard.

The SEC is now a make-the-tournament or find-the-door league. Half of its 14 teams earned NCAA Tournament bids. Four of the remaining seven pulled out pink slips. Out are Alabama’s Avery Johnson, Arkansas’ Mike Anderson, Texas A&M’s Billy Kennedy and Vanderbilt’s Bryce Drew. If suspended LSU coach Will Wade can’t wiggle off the NCAA hook, there will be five new league coaches come 2019-2020.

And it looks like the new Gang of Five could be pretty darn impressive.

Start with Buzz Williams, expected to be introduced as Texas A&M’s new coach Thursday. Williams led Marquette to five straight NCAA Tournament bids before jumping to Virginia Tech. He’s coached the Hokies to the Big Dance each of the last three seasons. Williams grew up in Texas. He was an A&M assistant under Billy Gillispie. He’s just the kind of coach who can take advantage of the Aggies’ resources.

Meanwhile, looks like Alabama AD Greg Byrne hit a home run by hiring Nate Oats away from Buffalo. You remember Oats. He’s the coach who, before playing Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, said he was tired of Calipari’s “whining” about having so many freshmen. Oats apologized. Kentucky romped. Now the two get to see each other every year.

Buffalo returned to the tournament again this year for the third time in Oats’ four-year tenure. The Bulls finished 32-4, earning a No. 6 seed in the West. A former Michigan high school coach who was a Bobby Hurley assistant at Buffalo before handed the head chair, Oats is a rising star. Why even Allen Green, the AD at Auburn and Oats’ former boss at Buffalo, congratulated Alabama and Byrne, the former UK associate AD, on the hire. It’s not every day you see Auburn congratulating Alabama.

At Vanderbilt, the Commodores appear to be going the pro route in an effort to erase the memory of last year’s 0-18 SEC campaign. New AD Malcolm Turner, previously head of the G League, is reportedly in negotiations with Memphis Grizzlies assistant Jerry Stackhouse. A former North Carolina star, Stackhouse was head coach of Toronto’s G League team for two seasons. He’ll bring an interesting dynamic to both the Music City and the SEC.

Arkansas reportedly had its sights set on Kelvin Sampson, but he agreed to a contract extension at Houston. Nevada Coach Eric Musselman is reportedly a candidate. So, too, may be ex-UCLA coach Steve Alford. It’s more likely the new Arkansas coach will be someone from left field, given the Razorbacks are probably scrambling after missing out on Sampson.

Why now has SEC basketball become attractive enough to lure the likes of Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Rick Barnes, Frank Martin, Ben Howland and Tom Crean, all Final Four alums? And don’t forget Florida’s Mike White, Ole Miss’s Kermit Davis and Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin, all of whom have made at least one Sweet 16.

Money matters. Thanks to the SEC Network, the members have plenty of money to spend, and not just on football coaches. Commitment is another reason. Since the late commissioner Mike Slive launched an effort to improve the basketball footprint, programs have been on the rise. And not just Kentucky. South Carolina reached the Final Four in 2017. Eight league teams made last year’s NCAA Tournament. Four SEC teams reached the Sweet 16 this year. Auburn is in its first Final Four.

Back when Calipari first arrived at UK, he touted the SEC and you said, “Yeah, right.” Ten years later, he’s still touting the SEC and you say, “Yeah, Cal’s right.”

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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