This one will really resonate with the national media, he thought. Dan Leibovitz, the SEC’s new associate commissioner for men’s basketball, was excited to share an impressive draft-night stat with a few prominent sportswriters and broadcasters last week.
It was the kind of number those same folks had drooled over and trumpeted for years in proclaiming the league’s football dominance, and now here it was in hoops: The SEC led all conferences with five first-round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, including No. 1 overall Ben Simmons. Leibovitz proudly pushed that nugget to a select group of journalists.
“And the reaction was a little bit jaded,” he said Monday, sounding quite surprised. “I’m wondering why that is.”
Start with this: Simmons’ LSU team missed the NCAA Tournament. Vanderbilt made just a brief “first four” appearance in the NCAA tournament, despite first-rounders Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones. Kentucky’s national-best three draft picks didn’t get the Wildcats to the second weekend of the tournament.
For the third time in four years, only three of the SEC’s 14 teams were even invited to the Big Dance. Just three times in the last decade has the league gotten more than four NCAA bids. So yeah, draft bragging rights or not, the conference is still battling a perception problem in basketball.
Commissioner Greg Sankey, who also hired former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as a special advisor for basketball back in March, “keeps using the phrase, ‘Change the conversation,’” Leibovitz said. “I can see where we’ve got to puff our chests out a little bit here.”
He reeled off “so many great advantages” already in place: those draft numbers, improving league attendance, recent high-profile coaching hires (Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Ben Howland at Mississippi State, Avery Johnson at Alabama), several major facility upgrades and the SEC Network putting their product in front of the masses.
“We’ve just got to continue to bang the drum,” Leibovitz said.
Yes, but also win more. The winning more part is a pretty big part. Schedule tougher, sure, to improve that all-important RPI – “The eyeballs of the committee, they go to those top-50 wins, whether we like it or not,” Leibovitz said – but emphasize the winning.
The league has swung and missed on plenty of top-50 opportunities in non-conference play the last several seasons.
“I’ll be an advocate for them,” Leibovitz said, but “the proof is in the pudding. You’re going to have to schedule well; you’re going to have to play well.”
That ranked high on the list of ideas Monday when SEC Country asked the league’s coaches during their annual summer teleconference what they thought was the most critical ingredient to earning SEC basketball the kind of national respect the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and even an overhauled Big East enjoy.
“I appreciate you asking that question to all these coaches,” Leibovitz joked at the end of the call, “because I’ve been writing a lot of notes.”
In case he missed any of them – and because Frank Martin predictably had several thoughts on the matter:
FRANK MARTIN (South Carolina)
“I’m willing to put the coaching staffs that we have in this league up against anybody. I don’t think this league gets the credit it deserves. … Go back over the last 10 years: What league has had more players drafted than the SEC? It just goes on and on and on and on. We have to do a better job on our own campuses and as a league in believing in our product and promoting all the good to overcome all the nonsense negativity that people put out there.
“When I got here, everyone said, ‘Wait ‘til January. Your fans will come.’ Well, that doesn’t work. In November and December, we need to be promoted, because the games count. Well, this past year, I think if you don’t count the NIT games, we were 17th in the country in attendance. Our campus has done an incredible job of promoting our program. We need do that as a whole.
“From the NCAA perspective, I think we’ve gotta have criteria that’s in stone. That way, we’re not trying to hit moving targets. Because they said winning away from home. Well, we won nine games away from home last year but got absolutely no credit for it.”
RICK BARNES (Tennessee)
“I think you’re going to see some just drastic changes within the Southeastern Conference over the next couple years. The bottom line is everybody’s going to say, ‘What’s it going to take to get more teams into the NCAA,’ and I think Mike Tranghese said it as well as anybody: You’ve got to schedule well, but you’ve got to win some of those games. That’s the bottom line. We need to win some non-league games against some high-caliber competition and come into our conference with higher RPIs.
“But I know this: it was a great (SEC spring) meeting. From a coach’s standpoint, having Mike in the room … was one of the best coaches meetings that I’ve ever been a part of. It reminded me of my days back in the Big East. He just gives you a level of confidence that you know he’s been through it. He understands it from a coaching side, he understands it from an administrative side, he understands it from a person being on the committee. He’s just got this delivery that he can just make it quite simple, to be honest with you. I felt like our coaches truly all left there really energized, knowing that where our league is going basketball-wise – good things are going to start happening.”
AVERY JOHNSON (Alabama)
“It’s wonderful for all of our coaches that we’ve got (Tranghese and Leibovitz) that we can call on and lean on and guys that we know are going to be right there in the fox hole with us. So great job by commissioner Sankey. He asked us to give him a year to figure out a couple of things, and he’s definitely figured it out, so I’m excited about that.
“I have suggestions on how I think we can continue to improve as a conference, even though I’m new to the conference, and I think (Leibovitz) is very open to everybody’s ideas. I don’t think it’s necessarily a magic wand, but I’m looking forward to the times Dan and I get together to have some private conversations about how we can improve.
“The main thing is he’s been a coach (assistant at Temple, Penn and with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats; head coach at Hartford). He’s sat in our seats before and he knows what we’re going through. He knows how important recruiting is and scheduling and fan experience and budgets, basketball budgets. He knows what we need and I think he’s going to be a great ally for us and partner.”
BEN HOWLAND (Mississippi State)
“Really, it comes down to the athletes you’re able to attract. I think there’s a lot of reasons why this conference is going to continue to attract good players. Not just Kentucky, but everyone else in this conference. I mean, Kentucky is at a level by itself, in terms of what Coach Calipari has done with that program and their recruiting, but I think our league is really headed in the right direction right now.
“I think this (downturn) is a blip. I think it’s going to head back up, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that from commissioner Sankey on down, there’s a great emphasis from each of the different universities in this conference to really put an emphasis on being successful in men’s basketball. There’s no reason, with all the talent that is in the Southeast, why we can’t get back to where this conference once was.”
MARK FOX (Georgia)
“We need some transparency or some clarity from the NCAA Selection Committee so we know exactly what the target is. If we know that, I think we can use (Tranghese’s) expertise to build a path to improving the number of bids. But I think just Mike’s expertise in so many areas, whether it be television or how we do everything within the league, from our tournament on down, I think his expertise will be a real advantage for us.”
JOHNNY JONES (LSU)
“Someone like Mike Tranghese, who has a great reputation and is well-known, will be able to do a great job in helping the conference. And I think with the hiring of Dan, as well, you put those combinations together, and when you put attention and focus on certain things, especially in a league like this, I think we have the resources and the vehicles to make sure that we can get our message out there in a concentrated effort. I think it’s going to help right away, and it’s something I look forward to.”
JOHN ROBIC (Kentucky assistant)
“I think the teams are looking at their schedules a little differently and trying to improve those. You could see that the last couple of years, that’s really stepped forward for those programs. Just being able to see a lot of our games on TV – every team, just not Kentucky – is great. I think what you see is I think that schools have really upped their recruiting to where they haven’t been before and are getting really talented players. It takes time, but I think with those things that I mentioned, if the teams do what they’re supposed to do now the floor, the league will take another step up.”
MIKE ANDERSON (Arkansas)
“I think as coaches we’ve identified the biggest culprit. And that is recruiting and guys being in position for quite a while. I’ve been in this league for six years and I’m, like, I think the fourth-oldest guy in our league. So you’ve gotta have staying power, and as you get staying power, you’ve gotta get players. We’ve all talked about the non-conference schedule and scheduling teams that are stronger from an RPI standpoint, but it’s not just scheduling – you’ve gotta beat those teams. Our non-conference schedule, obviously, is going to set in motion what’s takes place in conference.
“But I just think the staying power, guys being there and having an opportunity to establish their program. I really feel that all the universities have got the right people in place. So now it’s up to us, from a coaching standpoint. We’ve got to go out and do our part of it. … I think our basketball is good enough (that if we) put teams in the tournament, I think we’ll really have an opportunity to showcase what the SEC is all about.”
BRYCE DREW (Vanderbilt)
“If you ask for one thing, the common thing is just win. If you win, a lot of those things will happen. So hopefully we can all have great non-conference records and non-conference starts, so when we get to league, there’s no bad losses; everyone’s going to be good.”
TONY MATLOCK (Ole Miss assistant)
“Well, I just think we need to promote the quality of our players a little bit more. I think we’re trying to do that and I think we’ll continue to try to do that, but I just think we have to keep promoting that the SEC is a really good basketball conference.”
MICHAEL WHITE (Florida)
“First off, I think (Tranghese) is a huge hire by Greg. Mike’s reputation and his resume speak for themselves. Mike was very active in our meetings. He was very helpful. He’s a terrific communicator. He’s obviously tremendously connected. He had a number of very good thoughts. He’s very supportive and he’ll continue to be supportive. I just think he brings a lot. It’s hard to even put into words how much he’ll be able to bring to the enhancement and elevation of basketball within the SEC.”
BILLY KENNEDY (Texas A&M)
“First of all, we’ve got to be able to win our games in the preseason against the (power conference) opponents we play against. That will create some momentum going into conference play and that will create more teams in the NCAA Tournament, and then we’ve got to win in the NCAA Tournament.”
KIM ANDERSON (Missouri)
“The SEC has mandated that we stay within a certain three-year average RPI of our opponents … so scheduling has become very important. I certainly think that’s an area where we need to do better, our non-conference schedule. The last couple of years, we’ve won six games and seven games in our non-conference, and certainly I hope this year we can do better than that. I think it helps our team, but it also helps our league and I think it helps the perception of our league.”
NOTE: Sadly, a teleconference glitch prevented us from checking in with Auburn’s (always quotable) Bruce Pearl on this subject.
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