As first-year commissioner, Greg Sankey did not put swagger in his travel bag for the trip to the 2016 Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“I was here three years ago thinking perhaps we’d only have two teams in the NCAA Tournament,” he said Wednesday.
Three SEC teams received bids to the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The number of SEC teams playing in the NCAA Tournament grew to five in 2017 and a record eight in 2018.
Welcome to upwardly mobile SEC basketball, which is on display here this weekend. The talk at this year’s SEC Tournament is of seven or eight or more teams being part of Selection Sunday.
Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who the SEC hired as a consultant to help elevate its basketball profile, said the league is in a pretty good place.
“I think the national narrative has changed,” he said. “You don’t have any more bashing of SEC basketball. I always felt because there is so much animosity nationally toward SEC football as they’re winning, people have to fire back at something.”
Tranghese acknowledged some surprise at how quickly perception of SEC basketball has changed. “I thought it was going to take longer,” he said.
Going into this weekend, five SEC teams were among the top 25 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings: Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State. Only the Atlantic Coast Conference with six had more teams in the top 25.
Other signs that SEC basketball is on the rise include this first: three teams playing in the conference tournament ranked in The Associated Press top 10: No. 4 Kentucky, No. 8 Tennessee and No. 10 LSU. “Our side of the bracket is like going to a Final Four,” Ole Miss Coach Kermit Davis Jr. said on Wednesday.
In the Jan. 21 AP poll, six SEC teams were ranked. That equaled the most in league history.
And when No. 1 Tennessee played No. 5 Kentucky on Feb. 16, that marked the first time two SEC teams in the top five competed against each other since 2003.
Familiar reasons are cited for the uptick. Sankey continued predecessor Mike Slive’s goal of elevating SEC basketball. New coaching hires. Facility upgrades. Athletic departments putting a priority on basketball.
With the changes came a spike in attendance, most notably at Georgia, which claimed several sellouts. Wednesday’s opening-night doubleheader in Nashville, which is always something of a snoozer, drew a record crowd of 10,849, the SEC said. The league helped boost attendance by selling tickets at a discount, but the lower deck was near capacity to see the league’s bottom four teams play: Missouri beat Georgia and Texas A&M beat Vanderbilt.
“Crowds are engaged,” Sankey said. “It looks like a college basketball atmosphere repeatedly across the conference. And that’s one of the encouraging elements of the re-emergence of SEC basketball.”
Sankey saw the next step in the growth of SEC basketball being making a bigger splash in the NCAA Tournament.
“You want to be on that stage at the end of the year,” he said. “I think we have some teams that have that opportunity.”
Even with the league trumpeting the rise of its basketball, Tranghese cautioned against assuming Final Four appearances and national championships are inevitable.
“I remind people you can’t judge the success on whether you win national championships. Those things are hard.”
In Tranghese’s time as commissioner, the Big East was synonymous with top-level basketball. Yet the league won no national championships from 1986 through 1998.
“Then all of a sudden, we won three in six years: UConn in 1999 and 2004, and Syracuse in 2003.
“It’s just cyclical,” he said.
Clearly, the SEC thinks the cycle is spinning in its favor.