In 2016, for the third time in four years, the SEC had only three teams invited to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
When the NCAA Tournament gets underway in full force today there will be a record eight SEC teams in the 64-team field. And just about all of them are capable of winning two games and reaching the Sweet 16.
This was not a function of luck or happenstance but the result of a five-part plan that started as far back as 2012. Here are the five things the SEC did to fix men’s basketball:
1—HIRED MIKE TRANGHESE: In 1979 Tranghese joined with Dave Gavitt to build the Big East into one of the best college basketball conferences of all time. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey hired Tranghese as a consultant in 2016. His job was broadly defined: To advise the SEC on how to improve men’s basketball.
When Tranghese, who retired as Big East commissioner in the spring of 2009, accepted the SEC’s offer several of his friends called. Their reaction?
“They started laughing,” said Tranghese, speaking from his home in Providence, R.I. “They pooh-poohed the entire job.”
[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Sankey asked Tranghese to look around quietly, assess the situation and get back to him.
“I was utterly flabbergasted,” said Tranghese. “What I found was that the negative perception (of SEC basketball) had overcome reality. People were starting to believe that the SEC couldn’t win in basketball because it was a football league.”
So Tranghese met with the SEC athletics directors. He met with the coaches. His message to both groups was the same.
“What I saw was that the SEC had everything you needed to be successful in men’s basketball,” said Tranghese. “The SEC has money, facilities, a passionate fan base and their own network.
“All the other stuff was just excuses.”
When the meeting with the ADs was over, Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley, whose school won back to back NCAA championships in 2006-2007, came up to Tranghese and thanked him.
2—HIRED BETTER COACHES: In the 1980s the SEC took a back seat to no conference when it came to the quality of men’s basketball coaches with a lineup that included Wimp Sanderson (Alabama), Sonny Smith (Auburn), Norm Sloan (Florida), Hugh Durham (Georgia), Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton (Kentucky), Dale Brown (LSU) and C.M. Newton (Vanderbilt).
“That’s a pretty good group right there,” said Durham, who took Georgia to the 1983 Final Four.
Now that coaching depth is returning to the SEC.
“When I took the job I told the ADs they had already started rebuilding with the hiring of Mike White (Florida), Ben Howland (Mississippi State), and Rick Barnes (Tennessee),” said Tranghese.
Howland took UCLA to three straight Final Fours (2006-2008).
Barnes took three teams (Providence, Clemson, Texas) to 22 NCAA Tournaments and Texas to the Final 2003 Four. In just three seasons he has Tennessee back in the NCAA Tournament a share of the SEC regular season championship.
In 2017, White’s second season at Florida, he led the Gators to the Elite Eight.
Frank Martin came to South Carolina in 2012 and last season took the Gamecocks to the Final Four.
Bruce Pearl came to Auburn 2014 and led the Tigers to an SEC regular-season championship this season.
Avery Johnson, who took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA finals, is in his third season at Alabama and has them back in the NCAA Tournament.
Bryce Drew is in his second year at Vanderbilt after taking the Commodores to the NCAA Tournament in 2017. Will Wade just finished his first season at LSU, Mike Anderson is a proven winner at Arkansas, Cuonzo Martin got Missouri into the NCAA Tournament in his first season. Bill Kennedy of Texas A&M was the SEC Coach of the Year in 2015. And, of course, there is John Calipari at Kentucky.
Now there are openings at Georgia and Ole Miss. Tranghese will be consulted on both jobs. His advice? Don’t think small.
“In men’s basketball it is critical to make great hires when you have an opening,” said Tranghese.
3—SCHEDULED SMARTER, TOUGHER: This process really began in 2012 when the SEC brought in Greg Shaheen, who for 12 years ran the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. And no one, in my experience, knows more about how the NCAA selection committee works. Shaheen helped the coaches and athletics directors better understand the metrics of how to schedule and get in the NCAA Tournament. His input still resonates throughout the conferences.
Former commissioner Mike Slive was so concerned about this issue that he requested schools to submit their non-conference schedules for oversight by the conference office. Some coaches didn’t like it, but they did it, and the schedules got better.
4—IMPROVED OFFICIATING/DAY-TO-DAY OPERATIONS: Fans will always complain about officiating but the SEC took a broad step to make it more consistent with the hiring of Mark Whitehead as the league’s supervisor of officials. Whitehead was a 31-year veteran with five Final Four assignments when he took the job.
The SEC also changed the dynamic when it assigned a full-time staffer to men’s basketball. It started with Mark Whitworth in 2013 and continued in 2016 when Dan Leibovitz was hired as Associate Commissioner for men’s basketball. It makes a difference when there is somebody on the staff who comes to work each day and concentrates on men’s basketball. During the season Leibovitz and Tranghese talk several times a week.
5—KEPT BUILDING: In the past few years SEC schools have poured millions into basketball facilities. There are new arenas at Auburn ($86 million) and Ole Miss ($96.5 million). In 2016 Florida did a $64 million reconstruction of the O’Connell Center. Dedicated practice facilities for men’s basketball used to be the exception. Now they are the rule.
Put it all together and you now understand why the SEC has eight teams in the NCAA Tournament.
And on Tuesday the SEC announced that Tranghese will continue his role as a special advisor to Commissioner Sankey.
“It has been a special experience,” Tranghese said. “Give Greg (Sankey) the credit. He and his staff did the heavy lifting.”
SEC IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT