If anyone saw this coming, it was Frank Martin. The South Carolina coach has been one of SEC basketball’s biggest advocates for years now. But for the league’s perception to take a next step, more programs needed to emerge.
Enter South Carolina.
In one fell swoop, Martin’s South Carolina team knocked off one of the giants of college basketball and cemented its place as a factor in the conference. South Carolina used a 65-point second half to shock 2-seed Duke in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32. Superstar guard Sindarius Thornwell led the way with 24 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists on just 14 shots. It was South Carolina’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1973 — yes, really.
After the game, legendary Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski told Martin that he’s building something special at South Carolina. That’s significant praise for a program with little to no historical basketball success.
“I read what he said about our team,” Martin said after the game. “For Coach K to say what he said, it’s still the little kid in me watching his teams play. Unbelievable compliment and that’s not because of who I am, but because of how those kids play. Coaches respect how kids play and for Coach to say that to me is the ultimate compliment because I try to get our guys ready to play.”
For years, the reputation of the SEC was subpar. It was firmly seen as Kentucky and the gang, or Florida and the gang before John Calipari arrived. The rest of the conference was largely perceived as a joke.
This year, the SEC sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Three of those teams qualified for the Sweet 16: South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida. That’s tied with the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten for most of any conference.
It's official for 2016-17: The ACC is a football conference, and the SEC is a basketball conference. What a world.
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) March 20, 2017
Had a couple breaks fallen differently against North Carolina, Arkansas might have been there too. More shocking, the SEC was a couple shots away from wiping the ACC out of the 2017 NCAA Tournament completely.
Martin’s Gamecocks are the primary surprise of the tournament, upsetting one of the most storied programs in the country. However, it wasn’t the first impressive coaching performance for Martin this season.
During nonconference play, South Carolina beat No. 25 Michigan and No. 18 Syracuse. That means in one year, Martin picked up victories over John Beilein, Jim Boeheim and Krzyzewski. A matchup with Baylor’s Scott Drew, one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, is set for Friday.
The most recent win was a shock for many, as the Gamecocks lost six of nine games heading into the tournament. South Carolina features the No. 4 adjusted defense in the nation, but the Gamecocks have averaged 90.5 points per game in their first two tournament games.
And really, South Carolina isn’t the only team that’s shifting the perception of the conference. Florida obliterated Virginia in the Round of 32 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time under second-year coach Mike White. Bryce Drew and Vanderbilt were seconds away from beating Northwestern as the Commodores made the tourney in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2012. Arkansas beat Seton Hall in the opener and looks to be on the upswing with Mike Anderson at the helm.
Everyone not in the #SEC: "The SEC is no good at basketball."
Me: We've got THREE in the Sweet 16!!! pic.twitter.com/oMafIjT6RL
— Evie Van Pelt (@OleMissEvie) March 20, 2017
Per USA Today’s finance database, 10 of the SEC’s 14 teams rank among the top 20 programs in total athletic revenue. It’s somewhat mind-boggling that the conference struggles so much to produce quality basketball competition for Kentucky.
Because of the deep history of football in the South and the lack of major pro sports teams in the region (7 of the league’s teams don’t have to compete with pro teams for the state’s love), the Southeastern Conference will always place the biggest emphasis on football. At 13 of 14 schools, football will receive the majority of the athletic funding and resources. The SEC doesn’t need to be the best conference in college basketball. However, moving out of the shadows is a significant and necessary step.
It just means more? After a lengthy hiatus, it seems like SEC basketball might just mean something once again.