When Missouri announced Cuonzo Martin as its 18th basketball coach, it sent a message that the program expected to win at the highest level.
“We have everything to be the last team standing one day,” Martin said at the introductory media conference. “That’s my goal.”
But while Martin’s bravado at the intro presser was significant, the contract details Mizzou released distracted everyone. Martin signed a seven-year, $21 million contract. For comparison, former coach Kim Anderson received $1.4 million per year when he signed in 2014.
Only 10 coaches in college basketball made $3 million or more in 2016. Among those that didn’t? Villanova’s Jay Wright, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and North Carolina’s Roy Williams.
A few days later, LSU announced former VCU coach Will Wade as its basketball coach. While his contract details have not been confirmed, Wade signed a six-year deal that’s sure to be significantly more than $2 million a year. Former coach Johnny Jones came to LSU from North Texas. Anderson came to Mizzou via Central Missouri.
The hires signify a trend that swept the Southeastern Conference in recent seasons. SEC basketball is ready to be taken seriously again.
Kentucky has been the class of college basketball since its inception, winning 48 regular-season championships since the SEC was founded in 1933. The Wildcats’ historical dominance has — at times — discouraged other programs from trying to compete.
However, several teams have the resources to at least perform at a high level. Missouri won 16 conference champions in the Big Eight under Norm Stewart. Florida and Arkansas both won national champions in the past 25 years under Billy Donovan and Nolan Richardson, respectively. Texas A&M won the 2016 regular-season SEC championship over UK.
Ten SEC athletic departments are among the top 20 earners in college athletics. Missouri and Ole Miss aren’t far behind, ranking No. 30 and No. 34, respectively. In recent years, athletic departments across the conference increased spending.
South Carolina shelled out to hire Frank Martin away from Kansas State in 2012, nearly doubling his previous salary. Alabama also threw plenty of money at former NBA coach Avery Johnson. Auburn hired coach Bruce Pearl, who had success at Tennessee
Mississippi State and Tennessee each hired coaches who had been to the Final Four: Ben Howland for the Bulldogs, Rick Barnes for the Vols. Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt and Mike White at Florida were inspired hires for successful programs.
The remaining coaches — Mark Fox at Georgia, Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss, Mike Anderson at Arkansas and Billy Kennedy at Texas A&M — are also among the better coaches in their respective programs’ histories. And of course, John Calipari builds contenders at Kentucky every year.
Capitalizing on gains
Because of historical success, football culture in the South and revenue disparity, basketball probably will not become a priority at most SEC schools. However, the results of increased investment are already manifesting.
While Florida and Kentucky separated themselves from the pack, the rest of the conference was surprisingly competitive. Eight SEC programs finished between 8 and 12 SEC wins this season. Nine won at least 18 games. Really, only Missouri and LSU were especially bad — and both hired new coaches.
Five SEC basketball teams made the NCAA tournament in 2017. The mark tied for most since 2008. Four of those teams won a game. Only Vanderbilt, which appeared in the tournament in consecutive seasons for only the third time, failed to win a game. Kentucky and Florida cruised to the Sweet 16. A surprise team soon joined them.
Behind 24 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists from star shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina — one of the upstart teams with little historical success — jumped to the Sweet 16 with an upset win over No. 2 seed Duke.
In the 24 hours after the upset win, South Carolina Sweet 16 shirts became some of the best-selling pieces of apparel in sports. Martin also appeared on Good Morning America and the Dan Patrick Show. The Gamecocks will continue to be a popular pick against Baylor on Friday.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 21, 2017
The rest of the SEC should be looking at South Carolina as an example of the exposure basketball can produce. It doesn’t take a national championship to earn attention in the NCAA Tournament, and it doesn’t take a $100 million investment. It seems athletic directors are starting to embrace the notion.
Ten SEC programs boast top-50 basketball recruiting classes. The SEC continues to acquire top talent. Missouri could join the group if top recruits Michael and Jontay Porter commit to the Tigers.
Recruits combined with increased coaching talent should help the SEC compete with other power conferences again. And if the SEC’s basketball reputation improves, fans will benefit most.