SEC wants to bounce back from down season in basketball

The Southeastern Conference has won more NCAA men’s basketball championships over the past eight years than any other league.

But the SEC was stung by last season’s collective performance that produced a mere three NCAA Tournament teams, matching its low-water mark since 1990. On the night of the bracket unveiling, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin called it “an embarrassment to the SEC.”

The league office shared the blush and acted, creating a position — associate commissioner for men’s basketball — and filling it with veteran staff member Mark Whitworth.

“We now have a staff member that’s going to walk into the office every day and the No. 1 thing to focus on is what we can do to grow and enhance men’s basketball in the SEC,” Whitworth said.

Other conferences, like the Big 12, have had administrators dedicated to hoops. This will be a first for the SEC, which has dominated the college football scene for years.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive devoted part of his football Media Days introduction speech to improving hoops.

The recent national titles — by Florida in 2006 and 2007 and Kentucky in 2012 — “does not offset the fact that last (season), men’s basketball did not meet our high expectations,” Slive said.

In addition to Whitworth, who had overseen the league’s men’s basketball scheduling, the SEC hired former NCAA vice president for men’s basketball, Greg Shaheen, to consult with coaches about non-conference scheduling.

Coaches will hear a simple message: Schedule better. Easy victories pad records but selection committee members use schedule strength as a primary decision-making tool.

“When you play somebody with an RPI worse than 200, it’s not just detrimental to you, but it affects everybody in the league,” Whitworth said.

Last season, the SEC finished with a better non-conference winning percentage than the Atlantic-10 but finished behind that league because of scheduling. According to several online schedule rankings, five of the league’s 14 teams were ranked 226th or worse nationally in non-conference schedule strength.

The three teams that made the NCAA Tournament, conference tournament winner Mississippi and at-large invitees Florida and Missouri, had the SEC three best RPIs.

Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama fell on the wrong side of the bubble.

Whitworth said the league will encourage higher profile non-league games, which likely will require teams to play home-and-home series.

That’s already happening with the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Eight of the 10 games will occur on campus, including West Virginia at Missouri, Kansas at Florida and Mississippi at Kansas State.

This season, the series takes place over a five-week span because of existing contracts, but next year it’s likely 10 games will be played over a three-day period leading into the first weekend in December.

The SEC hasn’t determined the math — its 14 teams against the Big 12’s 10 — for future challenges. The conference has considered using the seeding from the previous year’s conference tournament or having a preseason coaches’ poll determine its lineup. Matchups will change annually.

Also to be determined is the site of tournaments in 2017 and 2018. St. Louis has been widely speculated as a destination for 2017 — SEC officials toured the city and Scottrade Center during last season’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament — but the sites have not yet been awarded.

Atlanta will be the site in 2014 and Nashville in 2015, 2016 and 2019, and the league has expressed a desire to establish a primary site for the tournament with Nashville leading the speculation.

Last season, Mississippi upset Florida for the championship, and only the Gators advanced out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, losing in the Elite Eight to Michigan. The Rebels fell in the round of 32, Mizzou in the round of 64.

The idea with a new basketball commissioner is to give the SEC more opportunities.

“The league has been very, very good through the years,” Whitworth said. We pay our coaches well. We’ve made a commitment to facilities and we certainly have passionate fans. If you look at SEC basketball as a stock, this is a great time to buy.”