Can the SEC ever become a Basketball League?

Kentucky's Isaiah Briscoe cuts a piece of the net after an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M in the championship of the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, March 13, 2016. Kentucky won 82-77 in overtime. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

This school does care about hoops. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

This correspondent spoke with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on Tuesday, two hours after the conference had announced it had contracted Mike Tranghese, who served as the commissioner of the Big East when it was really big, as a consultant for basketball. Given that the SEC had — for the third time in four seasons, as Sankey noted without prompting — garnered only three bids to the NCAA tournament, something needed to happen. Tranghese qualifies as something.

I’m not sure, however, that he’ll be enough. Sankey and I spoke for 10 minutes, and he made the points he wanted to make: That he thinks SEC hoops are improving; that coaches must be allowed to build their programs; that the conference keeps urging schools to play tough non-conference schedules — as Georgia and Florida did but South Carolina did not; none of the three made the Big Dance — but that teams must win some of those tough games. And this above all: That three NCAA bids weren’t enough.

Toward the end of our phone session, I asked about the elephant in the room. (Yes, Alabama’s mascot is an elephant.) Has SEC football grown so massive — seven national titles in nine seasons — that basketball cannot flourish in its shadow? Sankey said what I expected he’d say: That the SEC just sent nine teams to the women’s NCAA tournament, that the conference’s baseball and softball teams are thriving, that there’s no reason the conference can’t be good at everything. (Did not Florida, under Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer, go NCAA title-BCS title-NCAA title in the span of 12 months?)

I’ve heard that before, from other SEC commissioners, and I’ve seconded the emotion. Just because a school is great at something is no reason for it to be bad at something else — not when money and manpower are being supplied. The SEC now has its own ESPN-affiliated network, which means, as Sankey noted, that every basketball game “is on TV.” (No more griping that the ACC and the Big East get all the attention. Indeed, the nation’s most-hyped player this season was Ben Simmons, not that it availed LSU much.)

But, not to sound like Fredi Gonzalez, you know what? I’ve begun to doubt what I once believed deeply. I do wonder if SEC basketball will ever be as good at it could/should be. Sankey mentioned the conference’s “resources” — he even cited the weather as a selling point — and he’s not wrong. But I’m not sure money and climate and even ESPN can override human nature.

SEC fans see SEC football as part of themselves — their birthright, their 24/7/365 passion, their DNA. Only one SEC school regards basketball that way, and it’s the one that plays the SEC’s best basketball but not very good football. I don’t know that, say, Georgia fans will ever embrace basketball the way Kentucky fans do.

Actually, that’s a lie. I do know. Georgia fans seem to take a perverse pride in disliking basketball. I’ve never understood it — Do they think cheering for guys in sneakers during the winter will sap their ardor for the team that plays on autumnal Saturdays? — but I’ve worked in this state for 32 years and I believe it to be true. (Indeed, I’ve had more than one UGA basketball coach ask in frustration, “What will it take for these people to care?” My unenlightening response: I really don’t know.)

Having covered the SEC since 1976, I’ve seen schools get excited about basketball. Vanderbilt is second to Kentucky in its enthusiasm for the indoor sport, which is surely no coincidence: Like UK, Vandy stinks at football. Tennessee and Florida fans can be made to care about hoops. LSU was pumped when Dale Brown was coaching. (Not so much when John Brady was.) Arkansas was crazy about hoops when the Hogs were rollin’ with Nolan Richardson.

Mississippi State has had very good teams. Even Auburn has had its moments, and not just when Charles Barkley was an undergrad. The Cliff Ellis teams at the turn of the century were a happening thing in the Loveliest Village. Missouri figured to bring more to the conference in basketball than football, though somehow that got turned around and now Mizzou is lousy at both.

The point being: It can and has happened in basketball at most every SEC outpost — though, at some of them, not for long. In football, the fervor almost never fades. (Kentucky and Vandy being the exceptions, which is understandable.)

As noted elsewhere, the SEC went through a bad patch of basketball coaching this century. That has been corrected most places. Three SEC coaches (Barnes, Calipari, Howland) have taken teams to the Final Four. Three more (M. Anderson, Martin, Pearl) have reached the Elite Eight. One (Stallings) has made the Sweet Sixteen. One (Johnson) took a team to the NBA finals. One (K. Anderson) won a Division II championship. Of the 14 league coaches, only LSU’s Johnny Jones seems overmatched.

Still, it’s worth noting: Mike Anderson has won only one NCAA tournament game at Arkansas, though he won four with Missouri when the Tigers were in the Big 12; Mark Fox won an NCAA game at Nevada but hasn’t at Georgia; Frank Martin won NCAA games at Kansas State but, in four years, hasn’t gotten South Carolina to the Big Dance. Rick Barnes, Ben Howland and Avery Johnson just completed their first seasons at Tennessee, Mississippi State and Alabama, and the best any of them could do was Alabama’s NIT bid.

Coaching basketball in the SEC isn’t the same as working in the Big 12 or the ACC or the Pac-12. (Or the NBA.) Here you can’t just coach. The aforementioned Dale Brown traveled the length and breadth of Louisiana handing out purple-and-gold basketball nets. The great Ray Mears had his Tennessee teams take the court behind a guy dribbling a basketball while riding a unicycle. But even if you promote like crazy and have good teams and great players — Brown had Shaq and Chris Jackson; Mears had Bernie & Ernie — eventually you realize: You’re still not football.

I have great respect for Mike Tranghese. I believe he’ll afford some help. But if can turn the SEC into a Basketball League, he should be more than a consultant. He should be King of the World.

Reader Comments 0

37 comments
OH:IO
OH:IO

The Schmeg


All one needs to know about dog basketball

Dawg^2
Dawg^2

Mark, I disagree with you on a couple points: first, as a UGA alum ('89, '03), basketball was popular among the students when I was in school and before I attended (also, see Tubby Smith's tenure); second, money has been the problem at UGA.  Our coliseum was built before I was born, over 50 years ago, and was terrible when I was a student.  In that time period, Auburn has built 3; and, third, UGA is in the Best position of all SEC schools other than Kentucky to be good at basketball, given the number of players produced by the state (and no, it is a lie that all the good players go to KY, UNC, Duke, etc.  I checked the 4 and 5 stars, they go to AL, AU, TN and Marquette?).  Also, having also graduated from UNC, I can tell you the students at UGA would be better than the students at UNC (UNC is like an all girls liberal arts college, not a highly competitive school like UGA, they don't call it "Commy Hill" for nothing). 


UGA needs to put its money to work on basketball and take advantage of it's enormous talent pool.  I realize all good basketball players are not african-american, but the state of Georgia has more, in total, than any state in the U.S., but does not have a good college basketball team (Fox is getting players out of Michigan?).  In academia, buildings are a reflection of a school's commitment to that subject.  Have you seen the new business school at UGA?  Mississippi State is building a new $40 million baseball stadium, and it already has the largest in the country.  Appearances count, to players, fans and alumni.  I see Stegman and know UGA is not committed to basketball, what do you think prospects think (see Indoor Football Practice Facility).

Bogan
Bogan

SEC has one great basketball school (UK); one great football school (Bama); one great academic school (Vandy).  I would like to see us increase the number of great academic schools, but that is a goal for the minority. 


OH:IO
OH:IO

@Bogan


And the rest are coattail riders


SEC! SEC!

Peachs
Peachs

Rural towns don't draw college basketball crowds, during the weekdays, and all white colleges don't draw a kid from New York, they are horrified, or their parents are, of the stories they hear about rural southern towns.  


You start going to Athens, for football,  as a young kid or adult, get drunk as hell, wake up Sunday with a hangover and a girl or guy you just met. It is the real south, and it's personality is not bred for basketball. 

slydawg
slydawg

Ok, so since on average, 7 of the top 100 basketball recruits who are Georgians, what do you think their excuse is? What about all the other top 100 recruits from Texas, all the way down to Florida, and back up to Carolina?

Did they not grow up around "dirty south culture?"

Oh, and by the way, many of them come from families who originated from the South, migrated up North and West, and generations later, back migrated here.

It's money and commitment. Period. .. No excuse why schools like Gonzaga and Wichita State are annually competitive.

Peachs
Peachs

@slydawg "exist polls will tell you different.  The reason the ACC works for basketball, is it in a urban league, minorities like and feel better in large cities, as opposed to single digit minorities. in cow towns.  


You will see more and more football going away from the SEC, in the years to come, for the same reason, now that they have a play off and the championship is won on the field and not in a spin box, where the SEC had learned how to stack the deck. 

Mulk
Mulk

If I am a very good football player from Chicago, N. York, Baltimore would I consider moving to Athens, Starkville, Tuscaloosa to play football? The answer is yes. If i was a good basketball player from Chicago, N. York, Baltimore would I consider going to those places? No. Lexington - yes. So, I am afraid that the southern schools get stuck with local high school kids and good basketball is not being played around here.


 

Michael_B
Michael_B

It takes lot of things to change the culture. Part of the problem is the top players just about always go to the schools that area always in the NCAA tournament. Georgia was about to break through as a school like that under Tubby Smith, but then he took his dream job (and barely was appreciated for it). I can't blame the guy. You can't compete with history.


So that's the first thing, a coach. Most of the good ones stick around for a while. That's why I'm hoping Mark Fox stays put. Back-to-back 20-win seasons for I think the second time in program history. But then it comes to getting him a constant stream of players. 


My best suggestion is find out from the ones that get away what made them choose against Georgia. If it's football being king, can't do much about that. If the facilities need upgrading, upgrade them. A lot of the so-called gameday experience could also use enhancement. Have the players meet up at the Georgia Center and then do a Dawg Walk to Stegeman. Give the band more money so they can get more people in basketball band per game (our stipend wasn't much but was appreciated).


I haven't been to a game in a while, but do something like the Munson video with some great calls by Scott Howard. Figure out some stuff to rile the fans the eff up. In short, make it an experience. Ask some soccer fans about organizing student sections better to get some unique cheers and chants going on. I could not get into it much when the cheerleaders were going "G, GO, GO DAWGS GO!" Seriously ask some people in soccer supporters sections and they will fill you with good ideas quickly.


As far as women's basketball, it wasn't really all that different. It was better quality compared to the rest of the country. But all the top players seemed to go to Tennessee and UConn. It kills me that Maya Moore went to UConn after playing in high school so close to UGA. It was her choice, but that's the kind of things programs can't allow to be winners.

LOGS1973
LOGS1973

SEC has little beyond Kentucky! Kentucky is very good!

That's about it for SEC basketball..

Peachs
Peachs

@LOGS1973 Kentucky is driving distance from Ohio, Indiana, and it gets lots of snow.  

Wayne_stuck_in_AL
Wayne_stuck_in_AL

The only way it will happen is when the NBA Players' Association gets rid of "One and Done" and forces players to stay at least a year longer.  Otherwise, the McDonalds' All-Americans will continue to go to Michigan State, Kansas, UNC, etc.

Gator_Machine
Gator_Machine

As for the other SEC programs, it starts with recruiting, recruiting,& recruiting. If a given SEC team cannot recruit any top high school basketball players in your state than they have to comb through the bushes and find some diamonds in the rough who have good basketball skills. Then it takes good coaching and strong support from their AD's in giving them the necessary facilities and other resources. 

As for the SEC basketball fans, WIN and they will come! Make the NCAAs annually and make a run there and the fans will come. It's also up to the media to promote SEC basketball - at least highlight all of the successful SEC basketball teams instead of talking about Alabama pro-day on the SEC network! That's ridiculous - nobody cares about Alabama football 24 hrs a day; you can start there!

Gator_Machine
Gator_Machine

Not much on the Florida Gators and the good job that 1st year UF coach Mike White has done? Florida played a top 15 SOS schedule with top 25 rpi wins over West Virginia/St Joes and just missed out on the NCAA by one more SEC win. With twenty wins & the NiT, Mike White out performed 1st year coaches Avery Johnson, Rick Barnes, and Ben Howland and 2nd year coaches Bruce Pearl and others. White is an up and comer in the mold of a Billy Donovan; White will soon have Florida back at the top of the basketball world!

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

I'm trying, but I got nothing,  It is just basketball that causes the ambivalence,  I guess. 


I will say one thing tho, college in whatever form, beats the heck out of the NBA.  At least the college coaches seem to use some strategy in their effort to win the games.

SaulK
SaulK

UK is the only team in the league that really cares about basketball and is willing to spend big money---the rest of the schools generate almost all their revenue from football and those ADs could not care less about basketball!

Gator_Machine
Gator_Machine

@MaxMose Maybe in the 1940s & 50s but I don't agree with this in the last 30-40 years. There is re-newed basketball commitment at many places in the SEC - from new coaches to new facilities.


Florida is renovating the O'Dome - a multimillion dollar project. Recently, Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina built new basketball arenas.

Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and others have big basketball buildings and support. With all of these basketball coach hirings, some of these SEC teams may be going in the right direction again.

Veteran coaches like Howland, Pearl, A.Johnson (NBA Finals) & Penders had their success at other places. It remains to be seen if they can build a strong basketball progam at their new place.

richmart67
richmart67

@MarkBradleyAJC Why would a 4 or 5 star talent come to UGA where football is king when they could go to a B-Ball school and be BMOC?

rob_willm7
rob_willm7

@MarkBradleyAJC when South Carolina made their OOC schedule it wasn't weak. Can't help three teams leading scorers transfer summer before

Gator_Machine
Gator_Machine

@OH:IO I heard Meyer hates the winters so much in Ohio that he is now going back to Florida for Spring Break.His wife, Shelley, won't be too happy with Urban when he starts chasing those Florida co-eds (err recruits) again!

Gator_Machine
Gator_Machine

@OH:IO Florida will be coming up to Ohio to take care of the buck-eyes!


Go Gators!