UK Men's Basketball

Don’t expect SEC to move its tournament to November anytime soon

Kentucky Coach John Calipari cheered on his team against Alabama during the first half of their Southeastern Conference Tournament game in Nashville on March 11, 2016.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari cheered on his team against Alabama during the first half of their Southeastern Conference Tournament game in Nashville on March 11, 2016. AP

Don’t hold your breath on the Southeastern Conference acting anytime soon on John Calipari’s latest brainstorm — moving the SEC Tournament to November. Although the league might take that action someday.

Former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, the man hired this year to help raise the profile of SEC basketball, said such a move is much more complicated than simply flipping back four pages of a calendar.

“The devil is in the detail,” Tranghese said, “because there are unintended consequences.”

For instance, postseason conference tournaments count as one game against the NCAA rule limiting schedules. But the three games in a preseason tournament as conceived by Calipari would take away three potential home games, Tranghese said.

So NCAA legislation would need to be proposed and passed making such an event count as one game. That would take time.

Then the television masters must be satisfied. ESPN has the television rights through 2034.

Of TV executives in general, Tranghese said, “They don’t want to go up against college football.”

Ditto the National Football League. Rather than November, the eve of the NCAA Tournament is a better time to draw a basketball audience.

Then there are existing contracts for already scheduled SEC tournaments through 2025. The league has deals to hold its tournament in Nashville in March for seven of the next nine years (the exceptions are St. Louis in 2018 and Tampa in 2022).

“Those are huge logistical items,” Tranghese said.

The SEC could renegotiate its deals with ESPN, Nashville, St. Louis and Tampa. Tranghese said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey is not opposed to moving the league tournament to November. But Sankey has not decided whether he’d want to renegotiate existing contracts.

How to define what Calipari said at last week’s SEC Spring Meetings bought to mind the line from the Hollywood party scene in the Oscar-winning movie Annie Hall: “Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept ... and later turn it into an idea.”

Tranghese, who attended the coaches’ meeting in which Calipari shared his thoughts on the SEC Tournament, said, “I would term it a suggestion for discussion.”

More or less, the coaches tabled this suggestion without discussion.

“Because we were dealing with about four other things at the same time,” Tranghese said.

What exactly did Calipari suggest? He tweeted that the tournament be played in a “football stadium in Atlanta” or at two sites in Atlanta.

Either way, simultaneous action would take place on two courts. That sounds like AAU basketball, which made sportswriter Jackie MacMullan shudder.

“I coached AAU basketball,” she said on the ESPN program Around the Horn. “It was the biggest nightmare ever. You’re trying to yell at your players. You’re trying to call timeout.”

So might a coach on the next court. “This makes absolutely no sense,” MacMullan said of the multiple courts idea.

During an appearance on the SEC Network, Calipari said each team would be guaranteed three games.

“That’s your November,” he said. “‘We’re going to Atlanta. We’re going to have a ball.’”

South Carolina Coach Frank Martin gushed about Calipari’s suggestion because it would give SEC basketball, the perpetual butt of jokes, a niche. That no other conference plays a preseason tournament makes it all the better.

“We’re trying to find an identity for SEC basketball,” Martin said, “and I think that would definitely create an identity.”

A November tournament might also rid SEC basketball of a problem that won’t go away.

“I think it’d give our league an incredible story line at the beginning of the year when we desperately need it,” Martin said, “because there’s so much attention to SEC football.”

The Big Ten’s example argues just the opposite. The league did not play a postseason basketball tournament until 1998. Why did the Big Ten begin a postseason tournament? It wanted to be part of the Championship Week buzz.

“The whole last week of the season as they were playing their last regular-season games, they were being largely ignored,” Tranghese said.

Said Mark Rudner, an associate commissioner of the Big Ten: “That’s accurate.”

During the SEC Spring Meetings, Tranghese asked Calipari to send him his notions, concepts and ideas.

“Let me just really look at it and let me have some time,” Tranghese said he told the UK coach. “I’ll call you someday and we’ll talk our way through all these things. If we think they make sense, we’ll bring them forward together.”

Fond memories

In chronological order, here are 10 memorable SEC Tournament moments of recent vintage. Had John Calipari’s suggestion been in place, none would have happened. Perhaps even better memories would have been made in Novembers past. But with teams in an embryonic state and nothing much at stake, it would have been difficult to match the intensity and excitement.

1. Kenny Walker’s shot bounces off the rim and drops into the basket at the buzzer to give Kentucky a 51-49 victory over Auburn in the 1984 championship game.

Charles Barkley, who made news earlier in the tournament by being seen eating a Goo Goo Cluster on the Auburn bench, slumps to the court and weeps.

It is Kentucky’s first title since the SEC Tournament was revived in 1979. And it is celebrated.

2. Kentucky, accustomed to always being the prettiest belle at every SEC ball, is playing Vanderbilt in the 1992 SEC Tournament. Suddenly, a large number of fans ignore the UK game and react to something else. Huh?

It takes a moment to realize that fans of Arkansas, who are present in great number at their first SEC Tournament, have seen Arkansas players take seats near the court. The fans erupt in their traditional Calling the Hogs.

Message: Nolan Richardson-led Arkansas will not meekly accept Kentucky hegemony.

3. Also in the 1992 SEC Tournament, LSU Coach Dale Brown charges off the bench and appears to throw a punch at Tennessee’s Carlos Groves. Brown was acting in defense of a would-be 98-pound weakling named Shaquille O’Neal.

4. Also in 1992 (arguably the most entertaining SEC Tournament ever), the Alabama-Arkansas semifinal features six all-league players: Lee Mayberry, Todd Day and Oliver Miller of Arkansas; Latrell Sprewell, Robert Horry and James Robinson of Alabama.

Befitting a game with such star power, a last-second shot decides it. After such a taut struggle, Alabama hits a wall at halftime the next day and Kentucky breezes to the championship.

5. Kentucky humiliates Tennessee 101-40 in a 1993 second-rounder.

6. For pure basketball theatre, nothing surpasses Kentucky beating defending national champion Arkansas 95-93 in overtime for the 1995 championship.

Rodrick Rhodes fails to exorcise personal demons when he misses two potential game-winning free throws at the end of regulation. He’s too distraught to play in overtime.

7. Mississippi State beats Kentucky in the 1996 finals as Dontae Jones puts on one of the greatest displays of shooting by a UK opponent: 12 of 18 with several of his dozen baskets featuring a how-did-he-do-that punctuation.

8. In the 2001 title game, Kentucky and Arkansas — them again — show the importance of officiating. With the refs letting ’em play in the first half, Arkansas’ “40 minutes of hell” pressure puts UK behind by as much as 15.

UK fans scream bloody murder, perhaps a reason SEC supervisor of officials John Guthrie looks stricken as he walks off the court at halftime and heads toward the referees’ dressing room.

Coincidentally, the referees call it much tighter in the second half as Kentucky erases a 10-point halftime deficit and wins 87-78. Big Blue justice delayed, but not denied.

9. What else needs to be said about the tornado tournament of 2008? To review, the basketball gods prevent tragedy by having an Alabama shot go in at the buzzer, sending a game against Mississippi State into overtime. Otherwise, many fans would have been outside about the time an EF2 tornado (winds in the 111 to 135 mph range) descends on the Georgia Dome.

After mulling options all night, SEC officials accept Georgia Tech’s offer to resume the tournament the next afternoon at its Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

The rest of the tournament is memorable, too. How often do you see a player (UK’s Perry Stevenson) goaltend a free throw?

Georgia, which had tied for the worst regular-season SEC record, wins the championship by beating Kentucky, Mississippi State and Arkansas within 36 hours. It doesn’t happen often, but a conference tournament can have a major impact on a program and create a lifelong memory.

10. Kentucky beats Mississippi State in the 2010 title game thanks, in part, to the referees missing John Wall illegally breaking into the lane early to rebound an intentionally missed free throw in the final seconds of regulation.

After losing in overtime, Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury says the SEC favors Kentucky. The SEC fines him $30,000.

‘Greatest thrill’

In his coaching career, John Calipari has been to the mountaintop (Kentucky’s national championship in 2012). He orchestrated a once-in-a-lifetime program construction (UMass). He’s been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (UMass, Memphis and UK, but definitely not the Nets).

Calipari mentioned a much-less-publicized highlight during his appearance at the recent One: The Alltech Ideas Conference.

It was the early 1980s. He was a novice coach on the staff at Kansas. He was assigned to help Cedric Hunter learn to play point guard.

Calipari’s instruction included a move in which Hunter would come down on the fast break, fake a pass to a wing in order to get a defender to shift, and then rise for an uncontested layup.

But, Calipari cautioned Hunter not to attempt the new move in the next game against in-state rival Kansas State. Hunter either forgot or couldn’t resist the impulse to try it as he rushed down the court.

This surprised Calipari, who sat on the Kansas bench. “I close my eyes (and say) oh my gosh,” he told the Alltech audience.

Hunter pulled it off, scored and acknowledged his mentor as he retreated on defense.

“Greatest thrill I ever had in coaching,” Calipari said, “is him running downcourt pointing at me.”

Happy birthday

To SEC referee John Hampton. He turned 48 on Thursday. ... To former Mississippi State player Dontae Jones, who scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against UK in the 1996 SEC Tournament finals. He turned 41 on Thursday. ... To former Florida star Al Horford. He turned 30 on Friday. ... To former UK assistant Barry “Slice” Rohrssen. He turns 56 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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