Monday, January 22, 2018

SEC seeks to bolster men's basketball image, NCAA Tournament appearances

DESTIN — For a conference known for football, one of the most important things coming out of this week's SEC spring meetings centers on the league's overlooked revenue sport — men's basketball.

Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese has been meeting with the SEC's coaches as a special adviser appointed by the league. The goal is to come up with ways to combat the league's image and get more teams into the NCAA Tournament.

"Let's get a little formula right," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "You get running, then you get six, seven teams in the NCAA Tournament."

Except that hasn't happened since 2008.

The SEC placed only three teams in last season's tournament and Vanderbilt had to compete in a play-in game. Every other Power Five conference had at least seven teams in the tournament. The SEC had five teams in the tournament in 2015 but only three in the previous two years.

"It's concerning," Florida coach Mike White said. "I think it's concerning to probably every school in our league and definitely our conference office. We're a better conference than that. We just have to get over the hump."

How to get over that hump has been the major talking point in meeting rooms at the Hilton Sandestin hotel.

Some of the proposals have been radical. Calipari doesn't like the conference's postseason tournament because early losses doom teams and, in his opinion, winning the conference tournament title means little. As an example, he cited last season's SEC tournament title game, when Kentucky beat Texas A&M but ended up being seeded No. 4 in the NCAA Tournament while the Aggies were seeded No. 3.

Calipari's solution: Give the automatic tournament berth to the regular-season champion, and move the SEC tournament to the opening of the season. Give every team three guaranteed games at a neutral site — such as Atlanta's new football stadium, with the field divided into two courts.

"We go somewhere and all the fans come in, and we celebrate our league," Calipari said.

The more likely scenario involves moving the postseason conference title game from Sunday to Saturday to give it a larger impact on the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Commissioner Greg Sankey said those conversations will continue, despite some current contractual obligations that could complicate a move.

Sankey said the athletic directors are being challenged to schedule tougher competition. While seven teams had non­conference schedules ranked among the top 100 nationally last season, two (South Carolina and Ole Miss) were 300th or worse.

The previous expectation was that a team's nonconference opponents would have a three-year RPI average of 175. That figure is being lowered to 150.

"It sets an expectation that I think allows the necessary flexibility in scheduling and sets a higher bar," Sankey said.

And that higher bar could be good for the entire league, not just regular tournament teams like Kentucky and Florida. Calipari said the SEC's image as a football conference doesn't affect its basketball, but its mediocre reputation hurts everyone.

"The issue becomes the perception out there — that you lose a road game in this league, it hurts you badly," Calipari said.

Coaches think that perception could be changing, even without the strategies that emerged this week. UF is in the middle of a $64.5 million renovation to the O'Connell Center. Ole Miss opened a new facility, The Pavilion, in January.

South Carolina missed the NCAA Tournament but was a No. 1 seed in the NIT. White said he thinks UF could have been an NCAA Tournament team if its four-game losing streak had been three. Instead, even with a new coach, the Gators were five points away from a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT's semifinals.

"We're actually really quite good," Sankey said. "We're just not quite there yet."

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