SEC fights drought of teams in NCAA Tournament
Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 11:55 p.m.
These are nervous times in the SEC offices in Birmingham and it has nothing to do with the fact that many employees were iced in Tuesday night.
Instead, there is a concern that we could be seeing Armagedd-out, the worst-case scenario where only two SEC teams make the NCAA Tournament.
That would be especially frustrating after the league took steps to take the league's coaches by the hands and yank them into the world of RPI scheduling. The embarrassment of having only three of its 14 teams make the field for the Big Dance lit a fire under SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who appointed Mark Whitworth to be in charge of basketball development.
But it wasn't a one-year drop for the league. It really began in 1998 when Kentucky was down and Florida was down and the attendance at the SEC Tournament in Tampa was embarrassing. In the last five seasons, the league has had 19 teams make the field. In the previous 10 seasons, it had 58.
This season, there are two locks — Florida and Kentucky — and five teams floating in and out of the bubble. Wins by LSU and Missouri helped their causes Tuesday night, but the truth is that teams make their cases in November and December, then build on those resumes in the conference season.
For example, last year Alabama and Kentucky failed to make the tournament despite 12-6 conference records. In 2011, the Tide were left out despite a 12-4 SEC record.
Alabama toughened up its non-conference schedule this year, but it worked against it. A 6-7 non-conference record virtually eliminated Anthony Grant's team because there are so few opportunities to get quality wins in conference play.
“(Playing tougher non-conference teams) is a great thing and we like to see it, but is the league ready to handle it?” said Jeff Goodman, a college basketball insider for ESPN.com. “It has backfired to some degree. Next year, I think they'll feel a little better about it.”
Whitworth told me he spent time with every one of the SEC's 14 coaches in the fall to talk about scheduling and is doing it again during the season.
“The other day, an assistant came up to me and showed me a team he was thinking about scheduling,” Whitworth said, “and I told him that just wouldn't work. You have to avoid a team like that. That's the way we're going to get better.”
But it's not as simple as scheduling better. Certainly, coaches are getting away from the security blanket of automatic wins because they are starting to understand what Billy Donovan grasped after his post-championship teams went to consecutive NITs — that it's who you play, where you play and who you beat.
“Scheduling is not the problem,” said Mike DeCourcy, the national basketball writer for The Sporting News. “The problem is having enough good players and good coaches.”
The reality is that the SEC's problem is not a simple one.
“I don't think it's one thing,” said CBSsports.com national basketball writer Gary Parrish. “There are a lot of prongs to this.”
And a lot of theories. I happen to subscribe to the one that says there is a talent drought in the South. So let's start there.
According to Rivals.com rankings, there are 52 players among its top 100 football seniors who are located in SEC states. Of those 52, 30 have committed to or are enrolled at SEC schools.
Of the top 100 basketball seniors according to Rivals.com, 26 are from SEC states and eight have committed to or signed with SEC schools.
“What happened to Southern basketball?” asked DeCourcy. “It all seems to have dried up at the same time. Alabama and Mississippi in the 1990s, there were tons of players coming out of there.”
It could be because the NFL is king and there are more opportunities in football with 85 scholarships and 53-man NFL rosters. It could be that college football dwarfs college basketball in terms of popularity.
“Every decision we make, I'm trying to look to see if it will help a young man want to play basketball in the SEC,” Whitworth said.
But while Kentucky can cherry-pick nationally and Florida has excelled at recruiting out-of-state players, the rest of the league is hoping the downward trend will shift and they can build with players who grew up rooting for their teams.
“The South was much better five-to-seven years ago,” Goodman said.
Yeah, back then it produced point guards. Name three good ones in the SEC other than Florida's Scottie Wilbekin.
Donovan will one day be in the Hall of Fame. No matter what you think of John Calipari, his track record as a coach speaks for itself.
Other than that, who scares you in this league?
“Let me put it this way,” Parrish said, “other than the top two, would you trade out any of the other 12 coaches? We could have a debate on each one. In the Big Ten, which is the best league, you wouldn't trade any of them out.”
Goodman referred to some of the coaches as “square pegs in round holes” because they might be strong coaches but don't necessarily fit at their schools.
Here's another statistic for you — take out Donovan, Calipari and Kevin Stallings and the rest of the SEC coaches have coached in six NCAA games at their current schools. But it's not like these guys fell out of trees. Those same 11 coached in 36 NCAA games at their previous schools.
“But you had better be entrenched in the South,” Goodman said. “I don't know if a lot of coaches fit their jobs.”
Parrish told me he doesn't buy into the SEC football mentality theory, that basketball suffers because the league is so football crazy. He cites Florida as an example.
And I agree that you can be successful in both sports.
But in November and December when teams are building the foundations for their resumes, is there any fan base other than Kentucky's that packs the arenas with throaty enthusiasm? Maybe Arkansas. But for the most part, the non-conference basketball season is treated by fans as an exhibition season.
“I don't know if there is another league that has only one basketball school,” Goodman said.
I've said this about Florida fans and I think it is the same for the rest of the non-Kentucky league — they care about basketball, but they aren't passionate about it. And while SEC fans will root for their rivals in bowl games and chant “S-E-C!” after big wins over non-conference teams, when's the last time you heard that happen in hoops?
Newspapers are pulling back writers from road games because of cost concerns and the lack of enthusiasm with readers. The Gainesville Sun is the only newspaper that has covered every Florida game this season. Newspapers in the South are more likely to pick and choose rather than offer the blanket coverage that comes with a football season.
A perfect example came two years ago when Florida was in the Elite Eight and getting ready to play Louisville in Phoenix. I checked the five most viewed stories on Gatorsports.com for the day of the game. Three involved spring football and the other two Tim Tebow.
And while the league's deal with ESPN has improved TV coverage, it's still lacking. Case in point — last Wednesday the SEC had three games that started at 8 p.m. Not one of them was televised in Gainesville. Some of Florida's best wins this season have been on TV in selected markets, but not nationally.
The league believes that will change next year when the SEC Network is introduced.
“It's all about distribution, but the SEC Network and the digital platform will benefit basketball,” Whitworth said. “We have more programming hours of basketball than any other sport.”
Everything in sports is cyclical. The football league known for its defense went all offensive this season. In 2006, the league had two teams in the Final Four and the SEC has had three national titlists — more than any other league — in the last eight years.
But Slive himself called last year's inclusion of only three teams in the Big Dance — for the second time in five years, by the way — “unacceptable.”
“For whatever reason, it's been trending downward,” Whitworth said. “We're not comfortable with that.”
The fact Slive has been aggressive rather than just waiting for the cycle to come back around is one reason he's considered a commissioner with vision.
And who knows? Maybe the league gets five or even six teams into the tournament this year if everything bounces right over the next six weeks. I wouldn't want to play a low-seeded LSU or Missouri or Ole Miss in a Thursday game.
Then again, maybe I would.
“The good days are ahead,” Whitworth said.
This is, after all, Year 1 of the initiative to make the SEC more relevant on the hardwood.
Nobody expects it to be the dominant league it has become in football. It just doesn't want to be a punchline anymore.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.