UK Basketball Notebook

UK basketball notebook: C.M. Newton urges 'fannies in the seats' for SEC

TV lucrative, but empty seats a worry

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJanuary 29, 2012 

Here's a novel idea: Take one of your soft paws (to borrow a term from Jimmy Dykes) and use it to turn off your television.

Go to a game.

In essence, that was the message C.M. Newton delivered last week in Birmingham to the transition team looking to guide the Southeastern Conference into a 14-team future. Newton, a former SEC coach and Kentucky athletics director, voiced his concern about how television can adversely affect the quality of college basketball.

"We needed to give real thought to the student-athlete who plays and the coaches who coach," he said of his message to the SEC transition team. "We should not let TV be the total driving force."

Music to a newspaperman's ears. But Newton was talking about what he believed was best for basketball, not for the First Amendment. He repeated what he saw as the four pillars of good basketball: good players, good coaches, good referees and good fans in the stands.

"If any of the four is missing, the chances of a good game (are diminished)," he said.

Is it irony to note that it takes only a glance at a televised game to see empty seats? Not at Kentucky, of course. But some SEC venues look practically empty, though the league's TV partners keep their cameras trained on the floor and, heaven forbid, seldom mention sparce attendance.

"I think fannies in the seats are very, very important," Newton said. "We're creating the passive spectator. I don't know when enough is enough when you're televising every game, which our coaches want."

Anyone who attended Kentucky's game at Indiana luxuriated in the atmosphere (except for the crash landing, of course). As UK Coach John Calipari likes to note, games against the Cats are events: once-a-year (or every two years) spectacles. So it might be harder for UK fans to grasp Newton's alert about a creeping staleness.

It's some of those other SEC games, which look like off-off-Broadway productions, that concern Newton.

He acknowledged the power of television money. Current TV-rights deals reportedly will bring the SEC in excess of $1 billion.

"I don't have the responsibility of creating dollars to run programs," he said.

Newton, who called himself "an old fossil," noted the difference in TV coverage when he entered the SEC as Alabama's coach in 1968. In those days, one league game was televised per week.

"I never wanted a bad team on TV," he said. "Now, it's just constant college basketball."

SEC Tournament

With expansion to 14 teams coming next season, it seems logical to expect the SEC Tournament to be held in a dome stadium each year. That will accommodate more fans.

That's not necessarily the direction the league will go, said Larry Templeton, who heads the transition team looking to ease Missouri and Texas A&M into the SEC next season.

Four of the next five SEC Tournaments will be in arenas, the exception being the 2014 event in the Georgia Dome. That's 2012 in the New Orleans Arena, plus 2013, 2015 and 2016 in Nashville, And the 2019 SEC Tournament is set for Nashville.

Contracts already signed before expansion from 12 to 14 teams are the reason, Templeton said.

But even if contracts did not exist, Templeton said the higher priority was on moving the SEC Tournament around the southeast rather than anchoring it in a dome every year.

"We didn't want it to be only a dome tournament," he said.

Templeton also noted the advantage of an arena-sized site.

"It's good occasionally to make that ticket a real tight ticket," he said, speaking like the former athletics director that he was (at Mississippi State).

Nothing is certain when the league's athletics directors meet late next month to discuss how to operate in an expanded SEC.

Templeton envisioned an SEC Tournament that would have all 14 teams as participants and expand from four to five days. The bottom four finishers would play on Wednesday with the two winners advancing to what has been Thursday's first round. The four top seeds would begin play in Friday's quarterfinals.

With Missouri and Texas A&M entering the league, might St. Louis and Houston become viable sites for the SEC Tournament?

Missouri and Texas A&M have asked about the process of being a host school for the SEC Tournament, said Templeton, who added, "They're certainly welcome to put in a bid to host the tournament after 2016.

"I'd be surprised if one or both of those schools don't bring a bid."

'Mardi Gras'

With the SEC Tournament barely a month away, UK fans are on the prowl. They're looking to buy every available ticket to once more turn what's ostensibly the league's means of determining a basketball champion into the Kentucky Invitational.

It's enough to give UK fans a reputation.

"Cat fans are very resourceful," said Tim Messa, an assistant ticket manager at Louisiana State. "They know all schools in the conference get an allotment."

They know all schools do not sell all the tickets in their allotment. This year, the SEC required each school to try to sell an allotment of 500 tickets. Schools could ask for more.

Since no SEC school comes close to Kentucky in terms of basketball passion, fans look to the other schools for unused tickets.

"They call every day," Messa said. " 'Do you have any tickets left?' "

Going into Saturday's game against Kentucky, LSU's average home attendance in nine home games was 7,777. LSU lists capacity at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center as 13,215. So logic suggests LSU is a good place to find SEC Tournament tickets. Not so.

"We've sold quite a few," Messa said. "Since the tournament is close to home (in New Orleans), we've sold our entire allotment to our season-ticket holders."

Of course, UK fans will wait and pounce at the SEC Tournament. Messa noted how UK fans will approach fans of teams that lost first-round games on Thursday, then second-round games on Friday and, when applicable, a Saturday semifinal game to buy their tickets for remaining games.

Of the scene that figures to unfold in the New Orleans Arena in early March, Messa said, "That's your Mardi Gras."

Hair today

Besides his speed, quickness and skill, the other identifying characteristic about LSU freshman Anthony Hickey is his hair. He wears it in dreadlocks pulled back into a pony tail.

His mother, Monica Moore, said she, too, wears her hair in this style. So do Hickey's uncle, stepfather and more than one cousin. "We have the natural look," Moore said of her family.

Hickey's mother acknowledged her concern that some people might draw unflattering conclusions because of the way her son wears his hair.

"We thought it might be a problem," she said. "(LSU officials) said if it doesn't interfere with his performance (it's OK).

"He's always meant to be a clean-cut guy. My baby is a good kid. He's not a thug."

LSU Coach Trent Johnson noted that another LSU freshman, Johnny O'Bryant, wears his hair in dreadlocks, too.

"I don't make an issue of it," Johnson said. "Here's the thing with me, it's a different day and age."

The LSU coach spoke of how the hairstyle was important to his players. So he decided there were more important lines to draw in the metaphorical sand.

"Going to class, getting an education and being a good teammate," Johnson said. "I dwell on that.

"I can't say I'd have been able to do that years ago."

Johnson, 55, also thought about the possibility of people drawing inaccurate conclusions based on a hairstyle.

"I'm all about personal appearance and their education," Johnson said. "I told Anthony, 'Somebody may judge you by how you look. Your responsibility is, when they talk to you, they find out what you're about.' "

As Johnson noted, the road to misperceptions runs two ways.

"A lot of guys are walking around clean cut and doing the right thing," he said. "Then you can't trust them as far as you can throw them. A lot of guys are out there preaching religion, and they're stealing."

Nasty, but playful

Going into Saturday's game, LSU Coach Trent Johnson was mindful of Kentucky's 38- and 26-point victories over his Tigers the last two seasons.

"If don't know if I can sit through another one like the last two we played," he said.

If UK were to crush LSU again, Johnson said, "I may have to take an exit quick."

The game in Baton Rouge two seasons ago was muscle against 90-pound weaklings. As the teams headed to the benches for one of the time outs, Johnson glared at the UK players as if to say, quit kicking sand in our faces.

"That group was nasty," Johnson said.

The LSU coach recalled DeMarcus Cousins, who had been a recruiting target, playfully twisting the knife after Kentucky's 81-55 victory. Johnson and his wife, Jackie, were heading to their car after the game when Cousins appeared.

Cousins hugged Johnson's wife and said, "Miss Jackie, are you still with him? You need to leave him."

Recalling the moment, Johnson dryly said, "That was really fun."

History suggested

UK Coach John Calipari called for coaches to promote SEC basketball. He's done his part by predicting that four league teams, not including Kentucky, will advance to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.

If that comes true, it will be history. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, that scenario has never happened.

Only twice have four SEC teams advanced to the Sweet 16. Both times — 1986 and 1996 — Kentucky was one of the four. Beginning with the 1985 NCAA Tournament, the most common occurrence is two SEC teams advancing to the Sweet 16. That's happened 10 times.

Seven times, three SEC teams advanced that far. Six times, only one league team made it to the Sweet 16. Twice — 1989 and 2009 — no SEC teams played in the second week of the tournament.

Of course, with 14 league teams beginning next season, the chances of five (including UK) advancing to the Sweet 16 improves.

Love those rivalries

As the SEC determines how its soon-to-be 14 teams will play an 18-game league schedule, reader Steve Demaree wants the emphasis to be on preserving rivalries. Most likely, each team will play the other 13 SEC teams once, then have a home-and-home with five of those opponents.

"I would love to see two of the opponents UK plays twice to be Arkansas and Missouri," Demaree wrote in an email. "I think both would turn into quite a rivalry."

Then, Demaree added, "And, of course, they need to play Tennessee twice."

Then again, he added, "I would love to keep Florida home-and-home each year. But playing four tough teams twice could make it hard to win the SEC."

Demaree extended his love of rivalries to non-conference play even though UK Coach John Calipari has spoken of the need to end one of the traditional rivalries: either North Carolina, Louisville or Indiana.

"I would also like for the series with North Carolina to continue," Demaree wrote. "Cal could do that and do away with two cupcakes each year. Of course, that would mean less income for the basketball program. It will be interesting to see the new schedule and, hopefully, it will be fair for everyone."

Demaree, 63, is a lifelong resident of Lexington. He attended UK and wrote 15 books.

"I have been a UK basketball fan since the National Championship season of 1958," he wrote.

18 games

The dilemma of 14 teams and an 18-game SEC schedule will require compromise, league consultant C.M. Newton said. No one team, not even Kentucky, should expect to totally get what it wants.

"You're not going to be able to protect rivalries totally," Newton said of future SEC schedules. "It's going to require give and take."

Larry Templeton, the former Mississippi State athletics director who now heads the SEC's transition to 14 teams, echoed the prevailing wisdom about an 18-game league schedule beginning next season.

"I think everybody will play everybody at least once," he said. "Where do you go with the other five games? There are all kinds of options."

Happy birthday

To Chris Mills. The only UK player to achieve a triple-double turned 42 on Wednesday. ... To former UK player and staffer Tony Delk. He turned 38 on Saturday. ... To former UK players Josh Carrier, who turns 29 on Monday, and Rick Robey, who turns 56 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at jtipton@herald-leader.com.

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