By Mark Long
AP Sports Writer
DESTIN — When South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin walked into a Southeastern Conference meeting room earlier this week, his colleagues gave him a standing ovation.
Well-deserved recognition for leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four.
His counterpart in Columbia, women’s coach Dawn Staley, was presented a cake for winning the program’s first national championship.
The league probably should have had balloons, streamers and confetti, too. The SEC celebrated its recent hoops accomplishments at the league’s annual spring meetings. And rightfully so. After all, it was a banner year — literally — for the mostly football-first league.
Martin and the seventh-seeded Gamecocks were the surprise of the NCAA Tournament, upsetting Duke, Baylor and Florida before falling to Gonzaga in the Final Four.
Staley and her team reached the Final Four for the second time in three years and broke through by beating Mississippi State in an all-SEC title game. The Bulldogs stunned top-seeded UConn to reach the championship game, ending the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak.
“Just kind of a warm feeling about what we accomplished,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said.
Especially on the men’s side, which advanced Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina to the Elite Eight in March. It was the latest and greatest showing for a league that continues to strengthen its brand through hiring big-name coaches, landing top recruits and finding more success in non-conference games.
“It looks like we (could) have seven teams in the Top 25,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I mean, this stuff has switched. … There’s some excitement on just about every campus right now.”
Alabama and third-year coach Avery Johnson have five-star point guard Collin Sexton and four-star shooting guard John Petty on campus. The duo headlined the nation’s No. 6 signing class, which is being touted as the best in program history.
Florida, which made the NCAA Tournament in coach Mike White’s second season, adds sharp-shooting graduate transfer Egor Koulechov from Rice and gets former Virginia Tech swingman Jalen Hudson eligible after sitting out last season.
Kentucky and Calipari have the nation’s top recruiting class again, one that features six five-star recruits including one at each of the five starting spots.
Missouri and new coach Cuonzo Martin boast the nation’s No. 1 recruit, small forward Michael Porter.
And Tennessee brings in Howard graduate transfer James Daniel, who averaged 27.1 points to lead all of college basketball in scoring in 2015-16.
“I wouldn’t say you’re sitting here celebrating or relaxing or anything like that,” White said. “Now it’s a matter of what do we do next year? What’s next year’s team going to look like? What’s going to be our personality, our identity? What do we have to have as good of a team if not better? How can we max out next year’s team? We’ve kind of moved on.”
SEC basketball doesn’t have much else going on at the spring meetings. The league will introduce collaborative replay next season, a system similar to what it has in football. The replay panel will collaborate with on-court officials on all monitor reviews during league games.
“I’d even like it to go farther and have what they have in the (NBA’s) D-League, which is challenging calls in the last two or three minutes,” Calipari said. “If you don’t have a timeout, you can’t do it. If you have a timeout, you can do it. If you’re wrong, you lose your timeout. We’re not there yet. That was one of the things I think we need to explore more.
“Why not be the first college league that does challenging calls?”
Sankey said expanding replay could happen down the road, but not anytime soon. In the meantime, the league would settle for more breakthroughs and building on its ultra-successful season.
“It’s our turn now,” Calipari said. “What we did last year was a great start of it.”