John Clay

John Clay: 'Czar' underscores SEC's emphasis on hoops

A lot of people out there believe that for the betterment of the sport, college basketball needs a czar.

For the betterment of SEC basketball, commissioner Mike Slive is on the same wavelength.

That's why Slive made Mark Whitworth the man.

The Asbury graduate and 25-year veteran of the SEC office was promoted to Associate Commissioner in charge of basketball as part of Slive's concentrated effort to improve the men's hoops component of a league that has been dominated by football.

"I think the commissioner felt it was going to be very important for the conference to provide a full-time senior staff member devoted pretty much solely to SEC men's basketball," said Whitworth last week at the league's Football Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "As he said, 'I want a guy who comes into the office every morning thinking about what I can do to help support our member institutions and grow and enhance our game in this league.' Generally speaking, that's my job."

Other conferences have assigned associate or assistant commissioners to be in charge of basketball, but the SEC has handled basketball duties on a committee basis. One member handled scheduling. Another handled the tournament. Another handled game management.

But when the 14-member SEC was afforded just three NCAA Tournament bids and just one of those schools (Florida) advanced into the Sweet 16, Slive decided it was time for a different approach.

"I don't know if there's a direct correlation," said Whitworth about the timing of his new assignment. "I think the commissioner feels like as we move into the new work with our (TV) network — there is going to be more men's basketball on that network than any other sport — he feels like we need to put the best product out there."

How can Whitworth help achieve that goal? Through experience, he already has a good relationship with league coaches. He intends to build on that background by touring all 14 campuses to talk to coaches, athletic directors and other administrators.

"I've obviously got some ideas I'd like to see done," he said. "But I'd rather wait and get feedback from out constituents and then develop a plan."

Slive has made no secret that he wants league members to improve their non-conference schedules. To that end, he hired former NCAA executive Greg Shaheen, who for years ran the men's basketball tournament, as a consultant.

"He's been incredibly helpful," Whitworth said of Shaheen. "I think he's been able to remind our coaches and educate our coaches and athletic directors on the importance of managing your schedule and using the data that's out there."

Slive and Shaheen have stressed the fact that schools that play teams with poor RPIs, said Whitworth, not only hurt themselves but also the other teams in the league.

As well, said Whitworth, the league knows that it is often difficult for SEC schools to draw basketball crowds while fans are still wrapped up in the end of the football season.

"I understand the complexity of trying to get people interested in that late November/December time frame," he said. "I think that's where scheduling comes in. We've got to think strategically. And we've got to bring in some quality matchups and I think that will help move the needle a little bit."

Now it is Whitworth's job to think about it 12 months a year.

"We've got a great product," said Whitworth, pointing to the league's three national titles in the last eight seasons. "We've got quality coaches. We've got facilities and resources. Most of our schools have world-class practice facilities. We've got talented coaches, coaches that are proven in other leagues and certainly this league. I think good days are ahead."

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