Mark Story

Mark Story: How to 'fix' SEC men's basketball

Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan questioned an officials call as Kentucky defeated Florida 61-57 on Saturday March 9, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan questioned an officials call as Kentucky defeated Florida 61-57 on Saturday March 9, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Let's give it up for Mike Slive.

The Southeastern Conference Commissioner this week interrupted the pigskin party that is the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., to address what is, in a sports context, a full-scale crisis.

In 2012-13 SEC men's basketball was such a disaster, FEMA should have been activated.

In its first year as a 14-team "super league," the SEC saw a puny three of its members — Florida, Mississippi, Missouri — earn NCAA Tournament bids. A whopping one league team, Florida, made it to the second weekend of the Dance.

It gets worse.

By season's end, there was one Southeastern Conference team, Billy Donovan's No. 8 Gators, ranked in the top 40 in the RPI. Conversely, there were six SEC members ranked below 100 and three below 225.

It gets worse.

Every SEC men's hoops team in 2012-13 except two — Florida and Mississippi — had double-digit losses. Nine of the 14 Southeastern Conference squads suffered at least one loss I would classify as embarrassing.

Alabama lost to Mercer and Tulane. Auburn was beaten by Winthrop. Georgia got spanked by Youngstown State and Iona. Mississippi fell to Indiana State. Mississippi State was beaten by Loyola (Chicago) and Alabama A&M. South Carolina lost to Elon. Texas A&M fell to Southern. Vanderbilt lost to Marist.

To put the exclamation point on the SEC's year of underachieving, traditional league hoops kingpin Kentucky ended 2012-13 being stunned by Robert Morris in the NIT.

So amid basking in the glow of the Southeastern Conference's seven straight BCS football national titles and launching the league's new cable TV network, Slive is taking steps to get the SEC hoops train back on the tracks.

The league has retained former longtime NCAA Tournament official Greg Shaheen and given him power to review the non-conference schedules of all SEC schools. Raising the SEC's overall standing in the RPI — used by the NCAA in evaluating teams for post-season consideration — is the goal.

That's good as far as it goes, but the SEC and its schools need to do more than just learn how to better manipulate the RPI to the league's advantage.

SEC schools would do well to start acting as if they realize that the college basketball season begins in November, not after the BCS Championship is decided in January.

This past season was extreme in the number of early "bad losses" suffered by SEC men's hoops teams against schools from way down the college sports food chain, but there are consistently too many of those type defeats almost every year.

A league determined to improve the perception of its hoops prowess needs a concerted effort to stop losing so many early-season games to the likes of Winthrop and Elon.

The SEC would also benefit if its men's basketball tournament were less dependent on Kentucky fans.

Slive announced this week that the league was interested in establishing one city as a "primary" host for future men's SEC hoops tournaments. Nashville is seen as likely to become that city.

Wherever its tourney is played, what the SEC really needs is to figure out new ways to market the event with the goal of making it less of a Kentucky Invitational. (The same applies to the women's SEC hoops tourney, which needs to be less reliant at the turnstiles on Tennessee Lady Vols backers.)

You can't compel people to care about a sport or an event, but if the SEC is serious about raising its basketball profile it needs to find ways to make its tourney a bigger deal to fans of more schools.

The good news for SEC men's hoops is that, after the dispiriting slog of last season, it pretty much can't get worse.

Nothing cures what ails a league like an injection of talent. According to recruiting service Rivals, the SEC has help on the way.

Of the top 25 players in the 2013 Rivals 150, 11 have signed with Southeastern Conference schools (six of them, of course, are committed to Kentucky). Among the top 100 players ranked by Rivals, 21 are slated to perform next winter in the SEC.

With a league-mandated emphasis on better scheduling and what appears to be a small cavalry of young talent slated to arrive next season, dare we hope that the Southeastern Conference can produce a level of basketball in 2013-14 that SEC football programs can be proud of?

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