UK Men's Basketball

Quit laughing! SEC basketball is no joke, league leaders say

Confetti covered the logo on the floor after Kentucky topped Texas A&M 82-77 in overtime to win last season’s Southeastern Conference crown.
Confetti covered the logo on the floor after Kentucky topped Texas A&M 82-77 in overtime to win last season’s Southeastern Conference crown. AP

More first-round selections in last week’s NBA Draft came from the Southeastern Conference than any other league. Ben Simmons was the fourth SEC player to be the overall No. 1 pick since 2007.

Dan Leibovitz, one the men hired to help raise the how-low-can-you-go profile of SEC basketball, spread this good news.

“I sent it directly to a couple members of the national media to try to create a little bit of buzz,” Leibovitz said on SEC basketball’s summer teleconference Monday. “And the reaction was a little jaded. A little bit sarcastic.

“And I’m wondering why that is.”

That story does a good job of explaining why earlier this month the SEC hired Leibovitz, a former coach and administrator, and gave him the title of Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball. And earlier this spring, the SEC hired Mike Tranghese, a former Big East Conference commissioner, as a basketball consultant with a one-job portfolio: stop the snickering and sarcasm.

For instance, when John Calipari suggested that the SEC move its conference tournament to November, Michael Wilbon said on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption that the Kentucky coach wanted to “protect the rest of the weak, football-minded SEC.” This would be done by moving the tournament to a time when it didn’t compete with spring football.

Wilbon’s TV partner, Tony Kornheiser, said he was intrigued by Calipari’s idea. Then, he added, “I don’t know how the SEC commissioner feels about this because I don’t know if they told the SEC commissioner they have basketball teams.”

“Probably not,” a laughing Wilbon responded.

During the SEC teleconference, coaches and Leibovitz kicked around around ideas for making league basketball on the men’s side relevant and respected nationally.

The ideas included:

▪  Promote SEC basketball. “We need to puff our chest a little bit here,” Leibovitz said.

▪  Have faith. “We have to do a better job on our campuses and as a league in believing in our product,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said, “and promoting all the good to overcome all the nonsense and negativity that people put out there.”

▪  Give coaches time to build programs. Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson pointed out that after five seasons he is tied for the fourth-longest tenure in the SEC.

▪  Build on the positive momentum created by those NBA Draft picks and the message sent by the hiring of Tranghese and Leibovitz.

One theme cut through the salesmanship and marketing: Schedule eye-catching non-conference opponents and beat them. Then win NCAA Tournament games, and the SEC can only go up after having just three teams get bids in three of the last four NCAA tournaments.

“We have to win those non-conference games,” Leibovitz said. “There’s no mystery.”

Not intending a wink at Nick Saban’s powerhouse program at Alabama, the elephant in the SEC teleconference was football. When asked how a basketball coach should respond when a rival recruiter bad-mouths the SEC option as a “football school,” Leibovitz said that he’d never met a basketball recruit who didn’t love seeing a big-time football game.

Football establishes the SEC school as a “national brand,” he said.

Unlike football, basketball needs all its teams to be competitive, Leibovitz said. Teams with a poor Ratings Percentage Index can be a drag on upper-level basketball teams.

Leibovitz said he had ideas of how to send the message that “this is a conference very serious about basketball.”

The new Associate Commissioner for basketball made no promises of a quick fix. After saying SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was a “baseball guy,” Leibovitz added, “We have to keep hitting singles.”

Later in his 20-minute session (almost three times longer than the time typically allotted a coach), Leibovitz returned to the baseball analogy. “It’s not going to be a bunch of home runs,” he said of a SEC basketball revival. “It’s going to be steady singles, and continued diligence on our part.”

Leibovitz, a former assistant at Temple and head coach at Hartford, has also worked as an Assistant Coach for Player Development for the Charlotte Hornets. He was the basketball administrator for the American Athletic Conference when the SEC came calling. He suggested that this experience makes him wise to finger-pointing when things are going well.

“Coaches are always going to point to the conference and say the conference has got to promote,” he said. “And the conference is going to say a lot of it has to do with what happens on campuses and coaching hires.

“But, really, it’s a partnership.”

Leibovitz and the coaches suggested that SEC basketball is not as far away from respectability as it might seem. For instance, the league ranked second in attendance this past season, and relatively new coaches like Ben Howland, Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl are proven winners.

“I think we’re right there on the edge where we’re getting half the teams (in the NCAA Tournament),” new Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew said.

Barnes all but predicted “drastic change” in SEC basketball fortunes.

Howland called the SEC’s slide into basketball irrelevancy as “a blip.”

“I think it’s going to head back up … ,” he said. “No reason with all the talent that is in the southeast that we can’t get back to where this conference once was.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton