2019 March Madness: With four teams in the Sweet 16, here's why basketball is starting to just mean more to the SEC
The SEC will always be a football league, but it's undergoing a hoops resurgence and the pressure to win is growing
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The rise of the SEC story sort of rewrote itself this week.
Sure, the League Formerly Known For Football has four teams in the Sweet 16 for only the third time. That hasn't happened for the Strength Everywhere Conference in 22 years.
Football is still king down South but a slow, deliberate improvement has resulted in not only a loaded Sweet 16 but also this:
- There are more SEC teams in the NET top 20 (five) than any other league.
- The SEC landed more top 50 players (13) in the 247Sports Composite Rankings than any conference in 2018.
All of it adds up to a sudden realization that the pressure to win in SEC basketball is at least nearing that of football. Until Alabama hired Buffalo's Nate Oats Wednesday, there were as many job openings in the SEC as there are teams in the Sweet 16 .
Is it possible it just means more in basketball too?
"I think it's a football league. It will always continue to be a football league," said former LSU coach John Brady. "[But] even in a football-driven league like the SEC, if you put a quality product on the floor, they'll come to support it."
Just take the Sweet 16 teams: Kentucky is a given as a national power. Rick Barnes is doing at Tennessee what he did at Texas – consistently taking his team to the tournament.
Money is changing hands at a record rate at LSU. Calm down. That's another way of saying average attendance at the Pete Maravich Center for the conference champions was the second-highest in the last decade (10,536).
It's hard to tell what is more entertaining at Auburn, the three-point bombing Tigers or its gregarious coach Bruce Pearl.
"The league is as good as it's ever been," Pearl said. "All of us had to get through a real grind."
That grind now centers in the unlikeliest of places in the SEC.
"If you went to an Auburn game four years ago and you go to an Auburn game now you'd be in culture shock," said Mike Tranghese. "I think we've changed the culture within the conference."
"I think we've changed the culture within the conference." Mike Tranghese, the SEC's special advisor to the commissioner for men's basketball
A lot of you have never heard of Tranghese. Three years ago the former Big East commissioner was hired as a special advisor to "save hoops" in the SEC. At least that's what the headline said in the Montgomery Advertiser when he was hired three years ago.
At that point, the SEC had been the worst-performing Power Five conference the previous three seasons with only eight total tournament berths.
"I came back to [commissioner] Greg Sankey and said, 'Your people may not want to hear this,' Tranghese recalled. "There is no logical reason for you not to win in basketball. All I hear is negativity and excuses.
"I told it to the athletic directors. I told that to the presidents and I told the media that."
Tranghese's words carried weight. He remains a foundational figure in college athletics. As the second Big East commissioner (1990-2009) he led a start-up basketball conference that became a power and helped launch ESPN in the early days.
Forty years since the launch of the Big East it's safe to say Mike Tranghese is to athletic consulting what Kentucky is to basketball.
"I came and said, 'This is ridiculous. We have to change this,' Tranghese recalled. "I think the coaches finally felt there was someone in their corner."
Officiating, scheduling, hiring, even the quality of travel improved. The results the last three years:
- 2017 – 5 teams in the NCAA Tournament, three in the Sweet 16. South Carolina advanced to its first Final Four.
- 2018 – An SEC record eight teams in the tournament.
- 2019 – Seven teams with four advancing to the Sweet 16.
Going forward: The pressure is on. SEC basketball coaches are starting to feel it.
"Can we just slow down?" Pearl said Thursday at the Midwest Regional. "Board of trustees, presidents and ads in leadership positions somehow get a handle on this."
Kelvin Sampson has Houston in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984. Yet, a portion of the conversation Thursday at the Midwest Regional was Arkansas' reported interest in him. Mike Anderson was let go after three NCAA Tournaments in his eight seasons.
The same happened to Avery Johnson after four seasons at Alabama. AD Greg Byrne moved quickly. Johnson's departure was finalized on Sunday. By Wednesday, Byrne landed Buffalo's Oats. Be warned, SEC: The Bulls were the fifth-highest scoring team in the country.
Billy Kennedy was let go at Texas A&M with two Sweet 16 runs sprinkled in his seven seasons with the Aggies.
Bryce Drew's firing is easily the most debatable. The Vanderbilt AD -- with no AD experience -- who had only been on the job since February. There was a lot of shaming of Malcolm Turner nationally but the fact remains – Vandy is looking for its third coach since 2016.
"I know we're judged based on our winning, but there's so much more that we have to do on a daily basis," Pearl said. "It's a ministry of graduating kids and serving in a community."
It must noted at this point that Pearl is part of the culture in a not altogether flattering way. This is his second SEC job. Pearl had it all going at Tennessee when he was handed a three-year show cause penalty after lying to the NCAA about the recruitment of guard Aaron Craft.
"I'm upset about all the coaching changes," Pearl said. "I understand it's a high-risk, high-reward profession. I can tell you almost all of us coaches got in the game because we love to teach as teachers. We could just as easily be high school coaches as college coaches. We're good at what we did and advanced in our profession."
And the four jobs in the SEC that opened this spring don't include (yet) Will Wade's tenuous hold on the LSU job. Wade has been suspended since March 8 for refusing to talk to his superiors following the revelation of a federal wiretap. On it, Wade appears to refer to a cash "offer" given to a player.
Given Wade's lack of cooperation, LSU could have a job opening to go along with its Sweet 16 berth.
"Even Will Wade with his recruiting – all the other stuff swirling around I don't know anything about – has taken [LSU] to another level," Brady said.
This isn't a recent story. There's just been a gap in it. Florida won back-to-back national championships in 2006-2007. In 2006, the SEC had two teams in the Final Four counting Brady's Tigers who had five starters all from the state of Louisiana.
The league didn't have another non-Kentucky team in the Final Four until Florida again in 2014. What has sustained the SEC is the coaches they hire.
"When Rick Barnes left Texas to go to the SEC I called to see that his juices were flowing," Tranghese said. "He was fully intending on getting the job done at Tennessee. Collectively, we've made good decisions."
That includes hiring the league's first associate commissioner for basketball, Dan Leibovitz. The 45-year old former director of player development for the Charlotte Hornets coached under hall of famer John Chaney at Temple for 11 seasons.
In 2016, respected official Mark Whitehead was hired as coordinator of officials. Ask any coach how important it is to have a competent officials' coordinator who will listen when they phone to complain.
"We're used to being good in a lot of different sports in our league," Stricklin said. "Basketball was one where we were really struggling."
Tennessee is two wins away from its first Final Four, playing in the South Region. Minus Wade, LSU is 3-1 under Mike Benford facing Michigan State in the East Region.
Kansas City might be SEC Central this weekend. Kentucky's Big Blue Nation will its presence be known. Whether the Wildcats follow remains in question. Its best player, PJ Washington, is questionable with a sprained football.
Meanwhile, Auburn storms into Kansas City having won 10 in a row, winning the SEC Tournament and shooting threes on almost half their attempts.
"If they don't shoot 25 3s a game Bruce doesn't feel like they played good offense," Brady said.
Most of the SEC's modern-day basketball success begins with the late Mike Slive. It was in 2013 that the conference's former commissioner put the word out the league was going to be good in basketball.
It started with scheduling. Slive brought in Greg Shaheen, who formerly ran the tournament for the NCAA. Too many SEC coaches were scheduling wins, not testing themselves, therefore not making an impression on the selection committee.
There was some pushback but looking back the scheduling initiative was one of Slive's best decisions.
"That immediately brought a lot of credibility that we were trying to take the sport serious," Stricklin said. "We wanted to be good, not just waiting around for spring football."
Andy Kennedy spent 12 years watching it all at Ole Miss before being fired last year.
"Commissioner Slive put a mandate out there," Kennedy said. "The league was going to take part in this. He made people schedule more aggressively.
"Mike Tranghese comes in and had a real heart-to-heart with athletic administrators in the league. That was an 'ah-hah' moment for the administrators. They said, 'Let's be good, but we can be elite in basketball.' "
It should be mentioned, all of what you're reading basically parallels with the launch of the SEC Network in August 2014.
"The network does wonders," Kennedy said. "We can recruit a kid to Ole Miss out of New Jersey."
Indeed, this year's eight-team all-SEC first team includes players from Connecticut (LSU's Tremont Waters), New Jersey (Ole Miss' Breein Tyree), Africa (South Carolina's Chris Silva)and Illinois (Tennessee's) Admiral Schofield.
Two-time SEC player of year Grant Williams of Tennessee is from North Carolina, an ACC hotbed.
"I said, 'Give me a logical reason the league is not winning in basketball.' Tranghese said recalling his earliest meetings in the conference. "They said, 'We are football league.' That's the single dumbest thing I ever heard."
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