One week before the men’s basketball field was set Sunday for the NCAA Division I Tournament, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey repeatedly used the same buzzword — progress — in discussing the state of the sport in his conference.
Sankey knows that the SEC’s national reputation has taken a beating during the last few years, but he thinks the conference is poised to turn the corner from punch line back to respectability.
“People that see it every day don’t make that snap judgment,” Sankey said. “People that don’t immerse themselves in what’s happening around our programs can make those quick judgments, but certainly we’ve underperformed relative to our other sports and our own expectations. I’ve been very honest about that.”
Three of the last four seasons, only three SEC teams participated in March Madness, but this year the conference has five teams going dancing — tied for the most since 2008.
Moreover, all five SEC teams — Kentucky (No. 2 seed, South Region), Florida (4, East), South Carolina (7, East), Arkansas (8, South) and Vanderbilt (9, West) — were top-nine seeds.
It’s been 11 years since the SEC had that many teams seeded that high, buoying Sankey’s claim of progress.
“I can’t help but think, in the future, we’re going to have more than five in,” said first-year Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew, whose team played the hardest nonconference schedule in the country and became the first 15-loss at-large team in NCAA tourney history.
Several key offseason administrative acquisitions helped reposition SEC basketball.
First, Sankey brought in Mike Tranghese, a former Big East Conference commissioner and NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee veteran, as a special adviser.
He recommended changes to scheduling procedures — a minimum average nonconference RPI of 175 this season, which drops to 150 for 2017-18 and subsequent years — that clearly paid dividends on Selection Sunday.
“To get five teams in the tournament … speaks to the respect that I think is now being shown to the league and the body of work that the league has put in,” said Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy, whose Rebels are one of three SEC teams selected for the NIT. “I think that the league is in a great place moving forward.”
More than half the SEC played a top-50 schedule, according to CBS Sports’ strength of schedule rankings, but overall it still ranks fifth in conference RPI — ahead of only the top-heavy Pac-12.
“One of our challenges, we lost a lot of close games in December and we need to be victorious in those games,” Sankey said. “You need to have teams participate in the NCAA Tournament, you need to have teams win the big games in the nonconference across the league and then you need to have success in March. Those are the three indicators that challenge the narrative.”
In addition to adding Tranghese, Dan Leibovitz was tapped as the SEC’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball and Mark Whitehead was hired as the SEC’s coordinator of men’s basketball officials
“They’ve been very helpful in the nature and substance of the conversations around men’s basketball,” Sankey said.
As important as it was to add voices with high-level college basketball experience, Sankey also credited SEC schools with making smart hires — including Drew, Florida’s Mike White, Mississippi State’s Ben Howland, Alabama’s Avery Johnson, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes and Auburn’s Bruce Pearl — that have elevated SEC basketball.
“There’s been a lot of work done on campus in terms of coaching changes that have produced some results,” Sankey said. “As others have continued to build their program, those have produced some results as well.”
Sankey believes in stability, and while he’d never tell a school who to hire, the SEC does have a vested interest in its coaching stable.
“We talk globally,” he said. “Coaching continuity is a reality that’s often associated with success. Think about the programs nationally that are successful and there’s an amazing consistency around the individuals leading those programs.
“We’ve got some programs that over the last 15 years have gone through five or six coaches. You want to see the right people in place and then you want to see them in place on a consistent basis and allowed to grow and develop a program. I think that’s what builds strength.”
Of course, Sankey isn’t satisfied with mere progress. The ACC (nine), Big East and Big Ten (seven) and Big 12 (six) all had more teams selected for the 68-team field than the SEC.
“Our expectations for men’s basketball are what we see in other sports, which is six, seven or eight teams participating in the postseason,” Sankey said. “That’s certainly our hope in the future.”
Certainly, he hopes Missouri can be part of the conference’s surge in coming seasons.
“I know it would be rewarding at the University of Missouri, because of the historical success and support for men’s basketball,” Sankey said. “That would be another great asset for the institution and its athletics department. For the conference, I’d like to see that kind of progress across the board.”