CHARLOTTE, N.C. – South Carolina head coach Frank Martin took some time on his drive to the Ballantyne Hotel for SEC Media Day to make a list. He wrote down all the coaches in the 14-team league who had taken a school to the NCAA round of 32 or better. By the time the list was done, there were 11 names.
He armed himself with the list – and a giant cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee – heading into his session with reporters on Wednesday to combat the notion that his league has two tiers: Kentucky and Florida, and everybody else.
“It’s a little insulting when you continue to talk coaches that have that on their side, that their teams in their league aren’t any good,” Martin said. He later added, “I’m glad [Kentucky head coach John Calipari] and his guys did what they did and Florida did what they did,” Martin said of the two league members that reached last year's Final Four. “Tennessee lost seven games [in conference] and we were a minute from having almost three teams in the [Elite Eight]. That’s a story that -- I don’t care who doesn’t like it -- that’s a story that’s getting real old in my eyes. It makes no sense, and it’s disrespectful. Forget me. It’s disrespectful to the coaches in this league that work their tails off and have proven that they know what they’re doing.”
Still, when people talk about the SEC, you can almost insert the hand motions yourself. It’s Kentucky and Florida here and everybody else down here, with the occasional exception like the Volunteers' run to the Sweet 16 last season.
“What happens is leagues all of a sudden get labeled,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said.
Whether that’s because teams don't pile up impressive nonconference wins, don't schedule enough challenging out-of-conference games in the first place, drop a game they shouldn’t in league action or bow out early in the SEC tournament, the league consistently gathers fewer NCAA tournament bids than other power conferences like the Big Ten and ACC.
Only three SEC teams -- Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee -- made the NCAAs last year, half the number from both the Big Ten and ACC, for instance. Those were also the only three SEC schools that finished in the top 50 in the KenPom ratings. The SEC finished fifth among the Power Five conferences (and behind the Big East) in averaged adjusted offense and defensive KenPomnumbers. Nobody is ready to give anyone in the league the benefit of the doubt until it proves it on the court.
The solution starts with scheduling – and beating – tougher teams in the nonconference season. Tennessee very likely made the NCAA tournament because it beat Virginia, the ACC regular season and tournament champion, by 35 points in Knoxville last December, while also going 1-1 in two games away from home against Xavier, giving the Vols a resume with at least some heft to make up for all the USC Upstates and Tusculumns.
“[The league is] going to start to measure our nonconference schedule in terms of strength of schedule,” Donovan said. “We want to play the most challenging, most difficult schedule as a league as we possibly can. When you play that kind of schedule, that could help."
No team is going to stop playing the Southeastern Louisianas and the Gardner-Webbs and the SIU Edwardsvilles entirely. You have to ease into a season and get those gimme wins to build confidence. Preseason tournaments and marquee noncon games help – and Florida and Kentucky are already playing in those – but not every program will get to play Wisconsin on the road, as the Gators did last year. It’s more a matter of if you’re going to schedule a home game against Rhode Island, as LSU did last season, you have to beat Rhode Island, as LSU did not.
Smarter scheduling and stronger early season wins can help minimize the negative impact of teams beating each other up in conference play. It can allow the SEC to start approaching the reputation of a conference like the Big Ten, in which every team but Michigan had at least six league losses last season. Then, if a team beats Kentucky this year, it will be seen not as a fluke, but rather an indication that the league is good.
“[The SEC] has a lot of good athletes and is really physical,” Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison said. “You have to bring it every night or you’re going to lose.”
Every conference is going to argue the teams in that conference can beat you on any given day and that their conference is good. When the ancient Aztecs were playing Ullamaliztli, they were probably tipping their hats to their opponents and battling perception problems and calls of bias against their league.
The rollout of the SEC Network should help. While it’s probably a given that football made the launch possible and successful, it will help the visibility of smaller sports – especially basketball.
“We have our own network and other leagues can say we have a network too,” Georgia's Mark Fox said, “but ours is in like 100 million homes. Ours is everywhere. This network is going to be huge for the continued progress of the conference. It’s really groundbreaking stuff to have the successful launch like we did and to have the exposure it’s going to provide.”
Now it’s up to the SEC to take advantage of that exposure. The expectations for Calipari's Wildcats are always high. Florida lost four key starters, but the Gators have proven they can endure such departures and still keep the program at a high level.
Which other team is going to step forward and consistently get to the Big Dance? Until that question is answered, it’s going to keep the SEC from being considered a true basketball conference despite having two of the best teams in the country.