UK Men's Basketball

SEC must ignore today, focus on yesterday and tomorrow in selling basketball revival

Auburn’s Charles Barkley, right, leaped to block a shot by Alabama’s Buck Johnson during the 1983 Southeastern Conference Tournament in Birmingham. To promote men’s basketball in the conference, a sports marketing director suggested the league should tout its rich history, which includes stars like Barkley (Auburn), Dominique Wilkins (Georgia) and Shaquille O’Neal (LSU).
Auburn’s Charles Barkley, right, leaped to block a shot by Alabama’s Buck Johnson during the 1983 Southeastern Conference Tournament in Birmingham. To promote men’s basketball in the conference, a sports marketing director suggested the league should tout its rich history, which includes stars like Barkley (Auburn), Dominique Wilkins (Georgia) and Shaquille O’Neal (LSU). AP

To raise its basketball profile, the Southeastern Conference needs … James Earl Jones? Maybe so. The actor’s commanding voice would be an ideal instrument to remind people of the SEC’s storied basketball past and how its future can once more be thrilling.

Think of the movie Field of Dreams and Jones’ ode to baseball.

“This game is a part of our past,” he tells leading man Kevin Costner. “It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

Dr. William Sutton, who heads the sports marketing program at the University of South Florida, suggested that the SEC adopt this approach in the renewed effort to promote its men’s basketball. Remind those who dismiss SEC basketball that such Hall of Famers as Charles Barkley, Bernard King, Bob Pettit and Pete Maravich played in the league. So did luminaries like Shaquille O’Neal and Dominique Wilkins.

Then envision the future stars to come.

“He talks about the past and future,” Sutton said of Jones’ speech in Field of Dreams. “That’s what I’m talking about. You can’t acknowledge the now. It has to be the past and leading into the future. You had a glorious past. Forget about where you are now. And we’re going to be great again.”

The now is the problem. Only three teams in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments. A 16-36 record last season against teams from the other four major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12). Losing records against teams from those conferences in the last four seasons (78-118) and nine of the last 10 seasons.

Even though the SEC led all conferences with first-round picks (five) in the recent NBA Draft, the league got little recognition for this.

“Because they didn’t stay” in college, Sutton said. “How many of those draft picks were one-and-dones?” Two.

“That’s the problem with one-and-dones,” the sports marketing professor said. “You don’t have continuity. You don’t have conference rivalries. You don’t have television interest.

“You turn on Kentucky because you know (UK has) the best players in the country. But are you going to turn on Alabama-Auburn? You don’t know who the hell is playing. And that’s the problem.”

The SEC has signaled its intention to gain national recognition and respect for its basketball. This spring the league hired former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese and former coach Dan Leibovitz to help blaze a trail to a glorious future.

Yes, Kentucky remains a national power. But UK’s success is irrelevant to the rest of the SEC.

“They’re so far above everybody else, they really function as an independent,” Sutton said of Kentucky. (That’s why we did not mention UK’s many great players above. They are associated with Kentucky, not the SEC.)

Sutton suggested Kentucky is part of the problem. Perhaps forgetting the last wave of expansion, he said the SEC is perceived as “Kentucky and the 11 dwarfs.”

UK’s dominance inhibits other SEC programs in much the same way UConn’s women’s program obscures its American Athletic Conference sisters, he said.

A recruit might see other SEC schools offering only Kentucky’s leftovers: second place, at best, in the standings, and only television slots that UK can’t fill.

“What you need is a recruiting class,” Sutton said. “You need five Ben Simmonses spread throughout the conference. Guys people can respect. Guys people want to go see. Guys people are going to pay attention to.”

There’s no quick fix. When asked whether he’d want the job of reviving SEC basketball, Sutton said, yes. Then he quickly added, “But I want five years.”

Then there’s football

On a teleconference last week, new SEC associate commissioner Dan Leibovitz suggested that all-encompassing football was a positive for the league’s basketball programs. He said basketball recruits love seeing a big-time football game during a campus visit.

To which, sports marketing professor William Sutton said of these prospects, “They see that, and say, ‘I wish I was a football player.’”

Sutton saw football as part of SEC basketball’s image problem.

“If I am a recruit and Alabama is recruiting me, I’m worried if anybody’s going to pay attention to me,” Sutton said. “Am I on the radar? Is this a conference I want to go to? Or should I go to the ACC? Or should I go to the Big Ten where you get a lot more love and a lot more attention?”

When asked whether rival recruiters might tell prospects that SEC basketball programs are at “football schools,” Sutton said, “I can’t imagine how many times a day kids would hear that.”

Former UK player Guy Strong was the coach at Oklahoma State from the 1973-74 season through 1976-77. He recalled how football dominated the culture there.

“It was hard to get them to accept basketball … ,” Strong wrote in an email. “When I coached at Oklahoma State, I said a pervert in Oklahoma was a guy who liked sex better than he did football. Same can be said for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia.”

Of course, football isn’t going away.

To explain the difference in fan devotion to SEC football and basketball, Sutton used a car analogy.

Football, he said, “is a Lamborghini, running on 16 cylinders. It purrs like a kitten. And it goes as fast as you want it to go. And it gets everybody’s attention as it drives by.”

And basketball?

“Uh, Chevy Impala,” Sutton said. “It’s sturdy. It gets there. Nobody cares.”

A precedent

In the 1970s, the Big Eight Conference provided a precedent for a league trying to boost its basketball profile.

Ironically, football provided the impetus. The Big Eight finished 1-2-3 in the final national football polls in 1971 (Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado). The league decided to use that success to promote other sports.

Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa Sate and Oklahoma built new basketball arenas about that time.

The Big Eight also decided to experiment with a shot clock and a three-point goal about a decade before those rule changes became part of college basketball. “That brought us some national publicity,” then-commissioner Chuck Neinas recalled last week.

The significant change involved the Big Eight Conference Tournament, which had been played during the Christmas holidays. Not wanting to harm this popular tradition, the Big Eight decided to — avert your eyes, John Calipari — begin playing a second conference tournament after the regular season.

“You think those guys were tired of playing each other?” Neinas said of the basketball coaches.

After two years of two conference tournaments, the Big Eight was confident a postseason event would work, so it ended the traditional holiday tournament.

“Much to the pleasure of the coaches,” Neinas said. “Members could play around the country in some of the other (holiday) tournaments and get greater exposure. So it all added up to a positive.”

To boost college basketball in general, Neinas suggested the season not begin until after the fall semester ends. He acknowledged the CBS contract to televise The Masters in early April makes such a later start unlikely.

“If you’re talking about trying to raise the level of interest in the sport of college basketball, you’ve got to find a way to get beyond football in some way,” Neinas said.

‘Don’t tell me’

A reference to UK basketball came up in — of all places — the National Public Radio show Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me last weekend.

The show, which originated in Portland, Ore., had former Trail Blazers guard Terry Porter as a guest. He was hired this spring as coach of the University of Portland’s men’s team.

Porter’s introduction included a mention that he played collegiately for Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“Not like one of those basketball factories,” host Peter Sagal said. “Not exactly the University of Kentucky, if I’m not mistaken.”

To which Porter playfully added, “They didn’t have any one-and-done candidates there.”

Servant leadership

In a column last week, Juliet Macur of The New York Times wrote about her first encounter with the late Pat Summitt.

It was 1997 and Macur was a journalism student. Summitt was coming off the fourth of what would be eight national championships with the Tennessee Lady Vols.

Macur left messages with a dozen top coaches seeking interviews as part of her master’s degree project related to a new women’s professional league.

Summitt was the only coach that returned Macur’s call.

“When I thanked her for calling,” Macur wrote, “she said that she always had time for young women trying to make their way in sports.”

Divine diversity

Condolences to the families (relatives and church) of Wayne Smith, who passed away last week.

Upon hearing of his death, the mind drifted to an end-of-season UK basketball banquet in the 1980s. Smith, who was to give the invocation, stood next to then-athletic director Cliff Hagan.

The contrast was striking: Hagan, a 6-4 Adonis, and the, er, well-rounded Smith looking like part of a Russian nested doll set.

Smith charmed the crowd by saying that he and Hagan proved that God had not created all men equal.

Correction

Last week’s UK Notebook required a correction. An eagle-eyed reader noticed that the math detailing recent NBA Draft picks from UK did not add up.

Here’s how it should have read: In John Calipari’s seven seasons as coach, Kentucky has had 28 players drafted. Of those players, 21 were picked in the first round.

In that same time span, Duke and Kansas together have produced 26 draft picks (20 in the first round).

Happy birthday

To Tubby Smith. The former UK coach turned 65 on Thursday. … To Tom Parker. He turned 66 on Friday. … To Ed Murphy. The former Ole Miss coach turned 75 on Friday. … To Ralph Hacker. The former radio play-by-play announcer for UK turned 72 on Saturday. …To Clark Kellogg. The CBS analyst turned 55 on Saturday. … To Digger Phelps. The former Notre Dame coach turns 75 on Monday. … To Todd May. He turns 52 on Tuesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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