SEC coaches turn to network, schedules for help
DESTIN, Fla. (AP) New Auburn coach Bruce Pearl has some ideas about raising the profile of men's basketball in the Southeastern Conference.
Most of them involve the SEC Network. One of them would be must-see TV.
''Bring the SEC Network to my home, let them see a barbecue and let them see what a barbecue looks like,'' Pearl said. ''Let them see me cooking.''
The suggestion drew laughs since the former Tennessee coach was fired after he invited recruit Aaron Craft to his home for a barbecue in 2010 and later lied about it to NCAA investigators. Pearl ended up with a three-year, show-cause penalty.
''Got to make sure the guest list is what it needs to be, right?'' Pearl said, taking a playful shot at himself. ''But don't you think the fans want to see that? So much of what we do is beyond just the basketball.''
Pearl and his fellow SEC coaches are counting on the SEC Network's national exposure and better non-conference schedules to bolster a league that has been criticized in recent years for a lack of depth.
The football powerhouse has been far from a hardwood heavyweight - even with Kentucky and Florida advancing to this year's Final Four. The league ranked seventh in conference RPI last season, got just three teams in the NCAA tournament and then had two coaches at high-profile places leave for other jobs.
Missouri's Frank Haith bolted for Tulsa, and Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin jumped to Cal. Those moves did little to change the SEC's reputation as a mostly football-first conference.
Coaches and administrators are looking for solutions that would ultimately land teams in the NCAA tournament.
''This is as focused as I've seen this league and these coaches and the programs and the ADs in how do we move this ball forward,'' Kentucky coach John Calipari said. ''We had three teams in the Elite Eight, two teams in the Final Four, a team in the national championship game and still ... come on now. Our goal is let's get half of our teams in within the next three years and two of us playing for a national championship.''
That's fairly ambitious for a league that has gotten five teams in the NCAA tournament just once in the last five years.
Better nonconference schedules could help. The league hired former NCAA tournament guru Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant last year.
Shaheen made his second consecutive trip to the annual SEC meetings this week, giving detailed presentations to coaches and athletic directors. It's essentially scheduling analytics, which show coaches that who they play in November and December affects everyone they play - fellow SEC teams - in January and February.
The SEC also started approving non-conference schedules.
But the league is going a step further this year, mandating three permanent, home-and-home opponents on everyone's 18-game conference schedule. And Commissioner Mike Slive plans on pitting the best against the best, essentially strengthening schedules across the board for the top half of the league while weakening those for the others.
''If every program just took the bottom-feeder off its schedule - just one bottom-feeder - then we go from seventh in RPI to second,'' Pearl said. ''What's best for the league is what's best for the upper half of the league. Let's look at the best playing against the best because that's what fans want, that's what television wants and that ultimately is going to get us more teams in the tournament.''
The SEC Network, which is scheduled to launch in August, could create more basketball awareness of the league in a football-dominated region as well as other parts of the nation.
''This has got to be a cool league to play basketball in,'' Calipari said. ''This TV ties it to a different level. You define the narrative. They can't write the story about you, `The league's this, the league's that.' You have your own narrative now and you also can be transparent. So the narrative that's not accurate, people can see is it accurate or not accurate? It's out there for everybody to see.''
The narrative last season, and the year before, wasn't very good.
More exposure, better recruiting and improved non-conference scheduling could change that.
Pearl's return - and maybe his barbecue - might help, too.
''He's going to do a fine job,'' Calipari said. ''I just told him, `Keep your shirt on and don't be painting your body.'''