A year ago, the man tasked with helping to lift SEC basketball from a rut to respectability found the landscape before him barren.
“Truthfully, when I came, I thought there was a lot of negativity,” Mike Tranghese, a former Big East Conference commissioner, told SEC Country. “People were beaten down. And people would say, ‘Well, we can’t win because of this.’ And I said, ‘It’s the biggest bunch of crap I’ve ever heard.’ It just is. I said, ‘This is cyclical. You have too much going for you. You now have good coaches, you’ve got your own television network, and you’re all over — you’re on TV. There’s no reason not to have success.’ ”
SEC basketball success? Why, hardwood harmony in a conference where hash marks rule is possible after all.
The SEC — the conference of Nick Saban, fall Saturdays filled with pomp and Uncle Verne’s soothing voice serving as the soundtrack of it all — found this March Madness to be marvelous. The conference received five NCAA Tournament invitations, a notable improvement after just three lived to dance last year. And Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina were alive and swinging as the Sweet 16 began. All three are scheduled to play on Friday.
The SEC hired Tranghese last March to be a special adviser for basketball. And while this was the vision from the start of his tenure, Tranghese recognizes more movement forward can be made.
The urgency of the conference’s situation was clear when the announcement of Tranghese’s hiring hit the internet in those dark days last spring. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s statement marking the occasion served as a bucket of frigid water to the face.
Sankey said in a release:
“Men’s basketball in the SEC gained positive momentum during the last 12 months, but we are not meeting our own expectations. As a conference, we seek continuing improvement in the national competitive success of our men’s basketball programs. Mike’s knowledge and experience will be an asset for me, our staff and the athletics programs of the SEC as we accelerate our men’s basketball enhancement efforts.”
One year later, a big step forward.
One year later, a big mission remains: to make the SEC one of the nation’s best basketball conferences without many hiccups to go with the heightened profile.
“I think I’ve, hopefully, contributed to making what I consider internal changes which are eventually going to have huge positive effects down the road,” said Tranghese, who was Big East commissioner from 1990-2009. “When Greg Sankey first talked to me, I told him the single most important thing we can do is make certain we hire good coaches. And I said, ‘Greg, that process has already started,’ because I know Rick Barnes (at Tennessee), I know Ben Howland (at Mississippi State), I knew of Avery (Johnson at Alabama), and I knew of Mike White (at Florida) because I had seen Mike coach.
“I said, ‘We hire good coaches, (and) eventually we are going to be good.’ We have too many good things going on. We have good arenas, we’ve got good fans and a lot of tradition. I don’t think anybody expected it as quickly, but I don’t think this is a one-year thing.”
SEC basketball makeover begins
Two big developments contribute to that faith. As part of internal changes within the past year, Tranghese credits the hiring of Dan Leibovitz, a veteran coach on the collegiate and professional levels, as the SEC’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball; and the addition of Mark Whitehead, a five-time Final Four official who has three decades of college basketball officiating experience, to be the conference’s coordinator of men’s basketball officials as key steps in improving the SEC’s strength in the sport.
And the chatter that the SEC can’t excel in basketball because of its football muscle? Tranghese considers that talk worthy of a trash bin.
“I said, ‘What I don’t want to hear is you can’t be good in basketball because you’re a great football conference,’ because it makes no sense,” he said. “There’s no correlation. I said, ‘I can go out and identify a bunch of schools who are very good — very good — in football that have a great tradition in basketball.’
“For example, Ohio State. They’re not in the tournament this year, but Ohio State has been a power in basketball. They’re a power in football. I said, ‘Football is a positive. It is not a negative. You use it for recruiting.’
“Rick Barnes is a great friend of mine. Rick was at Texas. We talked about it. Rick said, ‘I used Texas football to help myself recruit.’ It’s not a negative. It’s a positive. We bring our recruits in the fall, and they see how great it is to be on our campuses with football (season). So I just think we’ve hopefully turned the corner around, stopped talking about what we don’t have and people talk about what we have.”
The SEC’s march through the NCAA Tournament has people talking. It also raised awareness that the conference cupboard perhaps includes more ingredients for sustained success than pundits thought.
Kentucky, at 31-5, is the SEC’s blue-blood beast. But runs by Florida (26-8) under White and Duke-defying South Carolina (24-10) under Frank Martin in the East Region hinted at the conference’s improving depth. Arkansas (26-10) pushing North Carolina in the second round of South Region play and Vanderbilt (19-16) appearing in the West Region under first-year coach Bryce Drew were worthy of attention. The steps forward by Alabama (19-15), which reached the NIT in its second year under Johnson, also drew notice.
More to come
Still, there’s work to be done. College basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy slotted SEC as the nation’s fifth-best conference, behind the Big 12, ACC, Big East and Big Ten.
To Tranghese, the SEC is capable of more.
“I think the SEC should be and will be one of the four, five best conferences in the country every year,” he said. “There’s no reason (not to be). The Power 5 conferences in football also have an advantage in basketball. They should be — and the SEC will be — one of those conferences (that’s consistently successful in basketball).
“Some years you have a great year, and other years you might lose. But you can’t go four, five years having bad years. That should not happen, especially if we do our job and assist our schools in hiring quality basketball coaches.”
Chalk up the 2016-17 season as a quality year for SEC basketball, highlighted by one big shining moment during the NCAA Tournament’s first week. The summit remains in the distance, but the dark cloud above the conference’s path to respectability on the hardwood is dashed for now.
“I just think the negative lid has been lifted, and people are feeling good about ourselves,” Tranghese said. “And we’re going to get better. We did pretty good this year. We got five teams in the tournament. There’s no reason we can’t qualify seven or eight teams for the tournament. No reason we can’t do that.”
No reason not to dream big.