As the basketball Wildcats set their headlights on the NCAA Tournament and prepare to mash the gas pedal, the rest of the Southeastern Conference, for the most part, could be left sputtering in their dust once again. And whatever basketball fans there are in this part of the world are left scratching their collective head, asking, “Where did SEC Basketball go?”
Not that it ever could have been mistaken for the ACC or the Big East, but the conference UK calls home has had its moments, far more in the past than lately. And truthfully, only a handful of teams have pitched in to make the league credible when it comes to the sport where the ball is round and bounces straight and true.
The popular, pervading theory is that since football is, was and always will be king of the conference, basketball will be left wanting. Those pigskins cost money. Lots of it. And as long as mountains of cash are being strewn across the gridirons throughout the southeast, you can forget about hoops.
An interesting theory, but I’m not buying it.
Athletics directors at SEC schools have loosened up the checkbooks through the years, spending money on facilities and salaries. Most teams play in gyms that are new or have been renovated within the last decade (Vanderbilt one of the more notable exceptions).
As for salaries, John Calipari by far makes the most, but his 13 colleagues among them earn an average of $1.8 million per season. That’s a lot of cotton candy.
You can talk dollars, bricks and mortar all you want, but it always comes back to people, starting with the coaches. Bruce Pearl’s return to the SEC, despite his NCAA baggage, is a big plus. He’s colorful, and he can coach. The question is, can he attract talent at Auburn?
Mississippi State somehow talked Ben Howland, who led UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours, into moving to Starkville after he was dumped in Westwood. It’s already paying dividends for the Bulldogs. Frank Martin has shown signs of getting it done at South Carolina. And Mike White has put together a Florida team CBS Sports has predicted will beat out the Wildcats for the SEC title.
Along with Kentucky, those are the teams tournament prognosticators say will make the Big Dance. Only four. There was a time when the conference could land six and complain that one or two more should have been included. But, other than the Gators and Wildcats, nobody has really sustained a measurable presence in the tourney.
Toss out Missouri and Texas A&M; they’re the newcomers (although A&M’s incredible comeback win last March over Northern Iowa, when the Aggies came from 10 down with a minute left, was phenomenal).
Vanderbilt has been to the show 14 times but never has won more than two games. Georgia made the Final Four in 1983; Tubby Smith’s team threw a scare into Syracuse in the Round of 16 in ’96 but there hasn’t been much else.
Ole Miss has made it only twice; Mississippi State reached the Final Four in ’96 and won a couple of games in ’95.
Arkansas had a glorious run under Nolan Richardson, with seven trips in eight seasons, including the 1994 national championship and a return to the title game in ’95. But the Hogs missed the tournament entirely the following season and began a slide that saw Richardson eventually step down.
LSU has been to three Final Fours but hasn’t been dancing since ’09. Alabama had strong teams in the early 2000s; Auburn’s best teams featured Charles Barkley and Chuck Person, coached by Sonny Smith, in the ‘80s.
Tennessee earned tournament bids all six seasons Pearl was at the helm in Knoxville, because he went out and recruited better players. And that’s the key. Easy to say, difficult to do, but every football coach in the league will tell you: No matter how much your coach makes and regardless of the quality of your arena, Jimmies and Joes mean more than Xs and Os.
If you don’t have the players to begin with, it’s hard to coach ‘em up. The SEC needs better players, everywhere.