The Southeastern Conference basketball coaches on Monday’s telephone press conference all took a moment to pat each other and the league office on the back. Sometimes that can seem self-serving and annoying. On Monday, it was deserved.
With eight teams chosen for the NCAA Tournament and two more selected for the NIT — it would have been three but Georgia players voted to decline an NIT bid after the firing of head coach Mark Fox — the league stood alongside the other Power 5 conferences (or above them) as basketball equals. It’s been a league priority for several years now, with leadership urging teams to upgrade coaching and facilities, which in turn helps to improve recruiting. The SEC has also provided help with scheduling, which made a big difference when Selection Sunday came around. There were, for example, teams that had better overall records than Alabama but had accumulated preseason wins against softer schedules. The committee made a statement that 19 wins against a Top 5 schedule was better than 21 or 22 wins against a tray of Christmas cupcakes.
Will this turn into a sustained run of success that will cover several years? Time will tell. You don’t immediately turn success into tradition, even though it is a necessary first step. You plant the seeds, and the harvest comes later. But this year’s seeds are being placed in fertile ground. When the majority of teams in a league are in the tournament, the teams that aren’t won’t just sit still. That effect has already started.
Mississippi State fell just short this year but is returning enough perimeter power — the Weatherspoon brothers and the gifted guard Lamar Peters — to be a preseason Top 25 team. Hopefully, Ben Howland will do the one thing he neglected this season and will assemble a non-conference schedule to match his talent. (That helps all his peers in the league, in the long run.)
Two of the other teams that didn’t make it, LSU and Vanderbilt, have Top 5 recruiting classes — that’s national Top 5 — coming in. That’s going to create quick expectations, the same sort that Alabama had going into this year. There will be new coaches at Georgia and Ole Miss, and both will aim high. There are even rumors that one of the teams that made the NCAA field will consider a coaching change if their team makes an early exit.
At Alabama, though, the atmosphere is good. As Avery Johnson put it on the Monday teleconference, “However we got in, we’re in.” Suddenly, Alabama basketball fans are engaged in the national basketball conversation, a feeling they haven’t had in six long years. Nothing increases basketball interest like being in the bracket.
The next step, of course, is winning some games. The SEC did that last year, with less teams. There’s not an easy draw among the eight teams that got into the field this year, but there will be some teams that shine.
“This league will do damage,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It’s been doing damage. They just haven’t let more teams in. We have teams borderline that should have advanced that didn’t get in. Now we have eight teams in.”
That’s worth a pat on the back, even if it comes from the coaches themselves.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.