Even with every Southeastern Conference team except Kentucky and Texas A&M eliminated in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, success in resurrecting the league’s basketball profile is coming faster than Commissioner Greg Sankey expected.
“I really thought next year would be the year,” he said before Kentucky played Buffalo in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday. “But it’s encouraging to see it this year.”
By “it,” Sankey meant a record eight SEC teams receiving bids to play in this year’s NCAA Tournament. He thought the payoff to the SEC’s re-commitment to basketball two years ago would begin in 2018-19. That’s when such coaches as Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Ben Howland at Mississippi State, Avery Johnson at Alabama and Mike White at Florida would be in their fourth seasons. And Bryce Drew would be in his third season at Vanderbilt.
Six SEC teams won first-round games last week, equaling a league record set almost 20 years ago: UK, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee did so in 1999.
Four advancing to the Sweet 16 round would have equaled another record (four did so in 1986 and 1996).
“I try not to get ahead of myself,” Sankey said when asked about equaling or exceeding records. “We want to keep progressing. We’re not satisfied with the first round. (But) it’s encouraging.”
Now, the only record within reach is two SEC teams in the Final Four, which happened in 2014, 2006, 1996 and 1994.
Former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, now a consultant for the SEC, downplayed the importance of multiple teams advancing as an aid to raising the league’s basketball profile.
“You want to get to the point where your brand is not affected by how you do in the tournament . . . ,” he said. “I used to judge (the Big East’s) season on how many teams we got in. After that, what we did was a crapshoot. You’ve got to be good and you’ve got to be lucky, especially in what we saw this first weekend.”
Tranghese marveled at 16-seed UMBC beating No. 1 Virginia.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen as crazy a weekend in college basketball . . . ,” Tranghese said. “I can’t believe some of the outcomes of these games. I’m just dumbfounded.”
Among the teams eliminated were the SEC’s regular-season co-champions, Auburn and Tennessee. Auburn was not the same after a season-ending injury to forward Anfernee McLemore in February, Tranghese said.
And the basketball gods did not smile on Tennessee in a loss to Loyola Chicago, Tranghese said. “Every time the ball bounced, it just didn’t seem to go to Tennessee. . . . It happens sometimes.”
Sankey saw public relations value in SEC teams advancing in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think you saw without us having to generate any publicity, success generates its own recognition,” he said. “And I think there’s tremendous value in a lot of ways.”
The SEC set in motion a resuscitation of its men’s basketball identity two years ago. The league hired Mark Whitehead as supervisor of officials and Dan Leibovitz as associate commissioner for basketball.
“We weren’t meeting our own expectations,” Sankey said. “For me, it’s not about blaming the committee or complaining. It’s what do we expect of ourselves?”
Sankey recalled Tranghese, yet another new hire, asking a pointed question of the league’s coaches.
“What are you guys moping about?” Tranghese said to the coaches. “ This is a great place to be a college basketball coach.”
Recalling the moment, Sankey said, “It’s nice when somebody from outside with his background says that.”
When asked about his challenge to the coaches, Tranghese said, “They just felt they were isolated. The league was getting beat up, so they’re taking all the criticism. I don’t think they were confident a lot of people were really supportive.”
South Carolina breathed life in Tranghese’s words by advancing to last year’s Final Four. Eight bids to this year’s NCAA Tournament continued the process.
“What’s happening last year and already this year, it’s a sign of progress,” Sankey said.