SEC basketball has earned a magnificent March curtain call.
Still, bold action must come after the bow.
Savor the satisfaction of the five NCAA Tournament invitations. Love each second of the three Sweet 16 berths. Mark this moment, hold it close to the heart and hope the roll has only begun.
The SEC can claim victory no matter what happens to Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina in the rest of the fight to reach the Final Four. But a major test will come next season, when the chest will thump a little louder for SEC basketball after momentum was captured this spring like lightning in a bottle.
The SEC must make this strike last.
Face it, few expected the conference to produce this much electricity on the NCAA Tournament dance floor. Sure, Kentucky was there. Kentucky always is there. But who would have guessed Florida would mop the court with East Tennessee State and Virginia? Who would have imagined that South Carolina would mash Marquette and bedevil Duke?
The SEC is no heavyweight when we consider powerhouse basketball leagues. The Big 12 and ACC tower above like grand skyscrapers, their respective reputations well-earned.
In the past week, though, the SEC’s perception was enhanced.
This is no small feat. Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina — even Arkansas and Vanderbilt with early exits after competitive showings — made this time of year more than a countdown to football season throughout the league. That in itself is a win after too many sleepy springs.
For too long, SEC basketball has existed in the background.
Next season, the league must show this run was no one-hit wonder.
“I think as a first step, it’s very important, because the SEC has gotten bashed pretty good by all these so-called basketball pundits,” Mike Tranghese, a former Big East commissioner who serves as an SEC basketball special adviser, told SEC Country. “And I think this will quiet people down, and it’s forcing the basketball people to take a hard look at the league. It was just convenient to say, ‘Oh, the SEC just isn’t very good,’ without watching games or watching teams.
“We’ve got a lot of good players coming back. With our new coaches, we’ve had a highly successful recruiting year. At the end, if you get good players and you have coaches, you’re going to win and you’re going to compete.”
Coaches’ development will go a long way in deciding if the SEC will win in the future.
John Calipari at Kentucky is the gold standard. But Mike White has Florida on the move in his second year. Frank Martin delivered South Carolina’s first Sweet 16 berth since 1973. Bryce Drew appears to have promise at Vanderbilt after producing 19 victories in his first season. Will Wade is a hire with upside at LSU after totaling 51 wins with two NCAA Tournament appearances at VCU.
Still, there are weak spots.
Can Cuonzo Martin lift Missouri from the muck after so-so stints at Tennessee and California? Can Mark Fox turn a corner at Georgia? Will Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland pump life into Auburn and Mississippi State? Will Texas A&M ever be more consistent under Billy Kennedy?
The SEC’s NCAA Tournament run has allowed fans to expect more. When speaking to SEC Country recently, Tranghese said there’s no reason why the league can’t be considered one of the top basketball conferences each year.
He’s right. The time for apathy is over. The moment for excuses is done.
The five NCAA Tournament bids and the three Sweet 16 berths are quality first steps. But they’re only steps, not strides past the finish line. They represent a spike after the sorry showing last year, when the conference produced just three tournament appearances and commissioner Greg Sankey said, “We are not meeting our own expectations.” But they’re not a flagpole slammed into the soil of a summit.
A league of the SEC’s profile and resources should strive for greater results. The current rise creates anticipation for the 2017-18 season, when the conference will be judged by how it builds or backtracks from its movement forward this month. Much will be at stake.
No one will ask SEC basketball to rival the league’s football profile in success, interest or passion. But consistent growth without damaging regression should be a goal next season and well into the future.
Enjoy this memorable march through the madness, SEC fans.
Just know the bows will lead to bigger expectations later.