DESTIN, Fla. – When most of the world last saw Frank Martin, the South Carolina men’s basketball coach was angry, and seemingly justified in it. Angry that his team had been left out of the NCAA tournament, and angry that a miscommunication made the Gamecocks think they had gotten in.
But as Martin left SEC meetings this week, he was happy. Quite happy, thanks to what he’d heard about what the conference was going to do to try to get better in his sport.
“I think it’s the best meeting we’ve had in the five years I’ve been in the league,” Martin said.
The conference that rules football has been mired in hoops mediocrity for years now. It received only three bids to this year’s NCAA tournament, and none made it past the Sweet 16. At almost all schools, save for Kentucky, basketball is an afterthought.
And it’s not like the SEC hasn’t tried for years to improve in basketball: Previous SEC commissioner Mike Slive, a devotee of the sport who at one point chaired the NCAA selection committee, harped on teams scheduling better. They did that. In the past few years there was an influx of coaching star power – Martin, Bruce Pearl, Avery Johnson, Ben Howland.
And the league still finds itself in its current moribund state.
Enter Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner who the SEC has hired as a consultant, and who met with basketball coaches this week. He was the main source of optimism for Martin, who praised Tranghese’s vision, perspective and “willingness to fight.”
Fair or not, many in the SEC believe that college basketball analysts and luminaries – like Dick Vitale – push certain conferences, or at least teams from certain conferences. But who is SEC basketball’s most well-known advocate?
“We don’t have an ally to speak about our league publicly. We don’t have that,” Martin said. “On the contrary, 98 percent of the talking heads go out of their way to let the world know that our league isn’t good enough.”
Tranghese was hired in part to be that. Maybe not on television – he’s not a former coach or player – but behind the scenes.
“I’m an advocate for the SEC,” said Tranghese, who speaks with a New York accent, and is well-known in traditional basketball circles. “I think they (SEC coaches) get frustrated because they’re in such a great football league and sometimes get overshadowed. But that comes with the territory. But as I told them in there: Use it. Use it in recruiting. It’s an advantage to have these kinds of football programs and the stadium and attendance and the passion.”
Here’s the problem: SEC coaches already know that. So what actually changes now?
There are continuing steps aimed at improving the all-important computer numbers: Commissioner Greg Sankey announced there is a “specific expectation” in place that teams to have every opponent whose three-year RPI rank averaged in the top 150 nationally. That was pre-Tranghese, according to Sankey.
Other tweaks could include moving the SEC tournament up a day, so the final is on Saturday, and getting better TV spots for exposure purposes. There will be other creative ideas to improve attendance.
“There are things that are going to be changing,” Tranghese said.
Sankey made the case that the league is close, pointing out that in mid-February about a half-dozen SEC teams were set up to make the NCAA tournament, then half of them lost too many games down the stretch. South Carolina among them, as well as Florida and Alabama, while Georgia finished hot after a too-slow start.
“We talked about: We’re actually quite good. We’re just not quite there yet,” Sankey said,
But looming over everything is the perception factor. The SEC is considered to be Kentucky and 13 other schools where football is way more important. Winning critical home non-conference games is harder, and so is recruiting, when attendance isn’t as good.
The SEC may just have to win its way out of the predicament. In the meantime, it’s banking on Tranghese and his ideas.
“We’re not afraid to try things,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “You’ve got to want to try stuff. And we want to try stuff. Let’s try something different here.”