The SEC sent three teams to the NCAA tournament, one of those landing in a First Four play-in game. This marked the third time in four years the conference has dispatched only three teams to the Big Dance, and for comparison’s sake we note the representation of other major conferences in the field of 68:
The ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 — the other four power leagues — sent seven teams apiece. The Big East, which isn’t as big as it was, sent five. The American, cobbled together after rampant realignment, sent four. With its three, the SEC stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Atlantic 10.
Maybe you don’t care about this shabby showing. Maybe you watch the SEC only for its football, which remains mighty — seven national titles in nine seasons and Roll Tide! Be advised, however, that the SEC does care about its hoops. Be advised that this year’s NCAA delegation has been deemed unacceptable.
On Tuesday, the SEC announced that Mike Tranghese, once the commissioner of the really-Big East, has been contracted as a special advisor on men’s basketball. That can’t be a bad thing. But how much difference can a consultant make?
In a statement announcing Tranghese’s role, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said his league “gained positive moment over the last 12 months.” Later, in a telephone conversation, Sankey sought to clarify: “The reality is that we’re back with only three (NCAA teams) for the third time in four years. People read ‘positive momentum’ and ask, ‘What rose-colored glasses are you looking through?’ I’m not.”
Sankey said Tranghese will speak with coaches, athletic directors and league officials: “He has a different eye.” But the commissioner also said something intriguing: “Coaches need to be able to build programs.” That’s really a two-pronged issue: Schools must hire the right coaches, and then those coaches must be given time to work.
Coaching in the SEC this century has wobbled all over creation. Even Kentucky, the one conference school that cares more about basketball than football, pushed aside Tubby Smith — who’s taking Texas Tech to the NCAA tournament — for Billy Gillispie, who was gone in two years. And that’s not the most extreme example.
Tennessee employed four different coaches in the span of four years and nine days: Bruce Pearl was fired after lying to the NCAA; Cuonzo Martin left for California in a huff; Donnie Tyndall was fired because his former program, Southern Miss, was under NCAA scrutiny; Rick Barnes was hired after being fired at Texas. Three years after winning the 2009 SEC regular-season title, Trent Johnson left LSU for TCU, a move in no way lateral. Jim Harrick left Georgia in 2003 after the school removed its Bulldogs from the postseason.
Sometimes good SEC coaches have done bad things and paid the price. Sometimes SEC schools have simply hired bad coaches. The lasting memory of the 2016 SEC tournament won’t be of Kentucky’s overtime victory over Texas A&M in the title game. It will be of LSU scoring 13 points in the first half against the Aggies and 38 all told. This atrocity was perpetrated by the team with the hugely gifted Ben Simmons. At halftime, coach Johnny Jones was asked by ESPN about his team. “We had great energy,” he said.
Clueless Jones may represent a new low, but the SEC has seen a glut of substandard coaching. Anthony Grant (Alabama), Stan Heath (Arkansas), John Pelphrey (Arkansas again), Jeff Lebo (Auburn), Tony Barbee (Auburn again), Dennis Felton (Georgia), Gillispie (Kentucky), Rick Ray (Mississippi State) and Darrin Horn (South Carolina) worked 43 2/3 seasons at eight league schools and combined for six NCAA appearances and one NCAA win (by Pelphrey’s Hogs). Most had done good work elsewhere; they just didn’t do it in the SEC.
Said Sankey: “I’ll use South Carolina as the best example … That program is in a very different state today (under Frank Martin) than four years ago. I look at Tennessee’s hiring of Rick Barnes, at Ben Howland’s hiring at Mississippi State. Andy Kennedy (of Ole Miss) and Mark Fox (of Georgia) have built programs.”
At the same time, none of those five programs Sankey mentioned will grace the NCAA field. Fox offers an instructive example: In the two seasons before this, his Bulldogs went 12-6 and 11-7 in SEC play, tying for second and third; this time they were 10-6, tying them for sixth. For a time, Fox could simply outcoach people. With Barnes and Howland in the league and Avery Johnson at Alabama, that mightn’t be true — or as true — for much longer.
Sankey said he huddled with associates Monday and studies team profiles to try and figure out why his conference got only three bids. (Georgia and Florida played good schedules but didn’t win enough games; South Carolina won 24 but played a bad schedule.) “We have to win those games,” he said. “It’s not enough to schedule.”
He did, however, counsel against overcorrection. “We need to be very attentive without hitting the panic button,” Sankey said.
Credit the league for taking a hard look at itself — but a hard look is absolutely warranted. Three NCAA teams? That’s an embarrassment.