After another year of second-tier hoops status in 2004-05, the Southeastern Conference built a bounce-back blueprint based on its youth.
This was a baby-faced league. And from Baton Rouge to Athens and all points in between, talented underclassmen and precocious recruits were preparing to step into starring roles and lift an underachieving conference back to prominence.
The SEC hasn't had a single Final Four team since Florida's surprising run in 2000 – a dramatic comeuppance for a league that put nine teams in the Final Four and won three national titles from 1993 to 2000. Other than old reliable Kentucky, the SEC has had precious little to brag about the past four years, as it slid behind the rest of the Big Six conferences.
That was on track to end in '05-06.
Then everyone went pro.
The spring flood resulted in 11 SEC underclassmen or signees entering their names into the NBA draft. The SEC and then the ACC have the most defections from any league – but upon closer examination, those two lists are dramatically different.
Five ACC underclassmen are projected to be picked in the first half of the first round. None of the SEC refugees is projected to go that high – indeed, there might be none taken in the top 20 selections.
These guys aren't leaving for NBA lottery. They're just leaving.
"You wake up and go, 'Who in the world is telling you to do that?'" Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "It's unbelievable to me."
At least the ACC got three good years out of most of its early-entry candidates – and, not coincidentally, a national title for North Carolina. Six of the SEC's 10 players entering the draft have played two or fewer years of college ball, accomplishing precious little along the way.
With that many SEC players scrambling overboard, the task of closing the gap on the power leagues becomes even more arduous. In the last five years, the Final Four has hosted six teams from the ACC, five from the Big 12, four from the Big Ten, two apiece from the Big East and Conference USA and one from the Pac-10 – and none from the SEC.
"Nationally, to improve our perception, other teams outside of Kentucky need to break through and get in the Final Four," said Gottfried, whose team in 2004 became the only SEC squad other than UK to even make a regional final in that five-season span. "That would take us up a step, no question."
But it's hard to go up a step when the future of the league is flocking to Chicago for the predraft camp.
Of course, several good players remain – Arkansas' Ronnie Brewer, LSU's Big Baby Davis, Alabama's Chuck Davis and Ronald Steele, Kentucky's Patrick Sparks and Rajon Rondo, Florida's Al Horford and Corey Brewer, and Tennessee's C. J. Watson and Chris Lofton are a good place to start. And they'll be joined by some early-entry candidates who will withdraw their names and return to school.
But Mississippi State signee Monta Ellis, Kentucky's Kelenna Azubuike and Alabama's Kennedy Winston all have signed with agents; LSU sophomore Brandon Bass has entered the draft a second time, ending his eligibility; and Georgia signee Louis Williams described his chances of pulling out of the draft as "probably slim and none."
Then there is Kentucky center Randolph Morris. He'd seem an excellent candidate to return, averaging a disappointing 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds last season as a freshman, but his reclusive behavior suggests otherwise. He faxed the news that he was entering the draft to coach Tubby Smith, and as of early this week, had not returned any of Smith's calls.
This is a nationwide epidemic, but it seems to be hitting hardest in the Deep South. Among the reasons: College basketball is a secondary sport to King Football; higher education is not a universal goal; socio-economic conditions can be more challenging; and some AAU teams are virtual semipro operations that spoil players thoroughly.
Look at the roll call of star players from the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia in recent years, and how long it took many of them to go pro.
Four Mississippi natives have gone to the NBA without playing a minute of NCAA basketball: Jonathan Bender, Travis Outlaw, Al Jefferson and now Ellis. Bender, Outlaw and Ellis signed worthless letters of intent with Mississippi State, and Jefferson signed with Arkansas.
Alabama at least succeeded in getting a few kids into college, but they don't tend to stay there. In-state products Rod Grizzard, Gerald Wallace, Mo Williams and Winston all left well before their respective Senior Nights in Tuscaloosa. Big men James Lang and Ousmane Cisse went straight to the pros out of high school – and haven't been heard from since.
And from Georgia, Morris and Toney Douglas look like paragons of patience for attending college for a whole year before entering the draft. Kwame Brown, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and now Louis Williams didn't want to wait that long. Other recent Georgians who went pro after two years of college or less: Jamison Brewer, Jumaine Jones and Donnell Harvey.
"I think kids are being convinced by people around them that it's smart to test the waters, to get their name out there, that there's no harm done," Gottfried said. "There is harm done. Obviously, the emphasis on getting a degree is not nearly as important, and I think it gives kids a false sense of reality. Kids are getting suckered into thinking the second round is OK, which it's not."
Flash back to that Florida Final Four run in 2000 and what has happened since then. The SEC's slip and the hemorrhaging of young talent are not mutually exclusive events.
Of the league's 24 draft picks since 2000, 11 were underclassmen. Of that 11, six left with at least two years of eligibility remaining. And that number doesn't include signees who never attended an SEC school, such as Jefferson, Bender, Outlaw, Kedrick Brown and Kwame Brown.
Not coincidentally, Tubby Smith has been the guy who has kept his players in school the longest. Jamaal Magloire, Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans all tested the waters, yet all finished four-year careers at Kentucky. The only player who entered the draft with eligibility remaining was Marquis Estill, and he missed only a fifth year after sitting out as a freshman.
Now comes the new breed and a new reality in Lexington. Azubuike, considered second-round material at best, wasted little time declaring for the draft after the season ended. Morris waited longer, but might follow. And you'd need to view the world through Big Blue-colored glasses to believe sophomore-to-be Rajon Rondo is a four-year guy. (Two years seems much more likely.)
After seven years of bliss, Kentucky is no longer immune. But with so many other players coming out early, that might compromise the competition's chances of closing the gap on the Wildcats.
"The attitude out there now is that it's a risk going to college," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who has junior guards Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson in the draft for the time being. "Some guys struggle their first year and hurt their draft status. ... It's not fair, but some of the kids that go to college for four years get evaluated differently than the underclass guys and high school guys.
"I had an NBA scout tell me, 'We get intrigued by the unknown.' But then you have [four-year] guys like Udonis Haslem, Matt Bonner and Tayshaun Prince who maybe should have been drafted higher, who have proven themselves.
"But as we get closer to the June 21st date [to return to college], reality sets in. There are not a whole lot of spots out there for these guys."
Meanwhile, there are plenty of minutes available in a depleted Southeastern Conference.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.