The Southeastern Conference has suffered a serious decline in its men’s basketball reputation over the past decade. Despite producing three recent tourney champs (Florida twice, Kentucky once), the league is perceived to be a lightweight. And the computers used to rank teams aren’t helping. This past year the league ranked #8 in overall conference RPI for much of the season. A weak reputation amplified by several poor non-conference slates left the SEC as a three-bid conference when the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled in March.
A couple of months later, Mike Slive brought former NCAA Tournament executive Greg Shaheen to the SEC meetings in Destin to try and explain to the league’s coaches just how the selection committee’s strength of schedule tool works. In short, it’s not just your opponents, it’s also your opponents’ opponents who count.
At the time, South Carolina’s Frank Martin had this to say:
“Our non-conference strength of schedule last year was (ranked) 336. That’s unacceptable. That impacts every team in our league in a negative way. For example, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky got left out of the NCAA Tournament. They had decent RPIs. If my non-conference strength of schedule would have been 230 instead of 330, then their RPIs are in the 40s and now I think maybe two of the three of them get in.”
We praised Martin for his honesty. We also applauded the league’s Destin decision to require coaches and ADs to run their schools’ upcoming non-conference schedules through the SEC office for approval.
That decision didn’t sit so well with Martin or Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, however.
“I’m not a kindergartner anymore,” Martin said this week. “I think I can take care of my responsibilities.” That’s quite a change from his comments of a month ago, no?
Stallings said he’s “not a huge fan” of the league taking a role in scheduling, either. He also said the creation of a non-conference schedule is “a little more difficult than people who don’t do it think it is.”
If that’s the case, then Stallings should welcome some help. And the SEC should give him that help in the person of someone with a hoops background, someone who has cut schedules.
It’s time for the Southeastern Conference to call in a specialist on the basketball front. Former Mississippi State AD Larry Templeton has become the league’s de facto in-conference scheduling guru and we believe it’s time the league paid someone to take over as its basketball head.
What would such a job entail? Well, obviously, non-conference scheduling. A former basketball coach or AD would have an idea of what current coaches are up against on the scheduling front. That might make the league’s advice on scheduling a bit easier for today’s coaches to swallow. While Slive and his associate commissioners could focus on big-picture issues — the new SEC Network, bowl affiliations, the College Football Playoff, television contracts, etc — a new hoops czar could act as the actual judge on SEC squads’ non-conference plans.
The new head of hoops could also handle any complaints regarding officiating. The league made a change at the top of its officiating chain of command this offseason and neither the league nor Gerald Boudreaux has explained why he departed. One must assume that — barring some type of shady dealings — the league’s officials came under a bit more fire this year than usual. Road wins were tougher to come by inside the SEC and sources tell MrSEC.com there was a feeling amongst coaches that the league’s refs paid a bit too much attention to the hometown crowds. If true, consider that another reason why the league faired so poorly on Selection Sunday. It’s best teams weren’t able to collect many road victories. A new basketball czar who’s stood on the sidelines and barked at officials could serve as a knowledgeable, been-there-done-that type of buffer between the coaches and the new head of basketball officials, Jake Bell.
Finally, a new hoops guru would need to promote the conference’s basketball brand. Be that in the media or via his cell phone and Rolodex, an SEC basketball czar could work year-round to improve the national perception of the conference’s on-court product. That would require not only a person who’s been in the coaching world, but someone who has numerous connections and is respected by his peers.
So who fits that description?
Two names come immediately to mind. First, former Vanderbilt and South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler who now runs his own consulting firm. His company’s list of clients is impressive (Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Kansas State, Michigan, Penn State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Rutgers, Texas Tech and more). He’s been a coach and a broadcaster. He knows how to deal with the media and how to build a program as well as a non-conference schedule. The 65-year-old Fogler would merit a phone call.
The other man who would fit the bill is CM Newton, the former coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt as well as the former athletic director at Kentucky. Now retired at 83, Newton might not be interested in taking on a full-time role with the league, but he is still active and, as Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently stated, “CM Newton is still as connected as anyone in the game.” He has served on the NCAA Tournament selection committee and he currently serves on the NIT selection panel.
Newton told The Tuscaloosa News this past weekend: “I still serve as a consultant to (Slive) for basketball, but again that is done around my schedule, staying in contact with the coaches and serving as the commissioner’s eyes and ears with the coaches.”
If Newton isn’t willing to jump back into a full-time role, then it’s time to find a younger version of Newton to help steer and promote the SEC’s basketball product.
Former Auburn, Clemson, and South Alabama coach Cliff Ellis might fit the bill once he decides to walk way from Coastal Carolina, a program he’s led to two conference championships in six seasons. At 67 he has more than 600 career victories and all of the connections and contacts that come with such a lengthy career.
Bobby Cremins, 65, might have an interest in such a post as well. Having served at Appalachian State, Georgia Tech and the College of Charleston for more than 30 seasons combined, Cremins walked away from Charleston in 2012 citing physical exhaustion. Might he be up for a less stressful job that would still keep him in the basketball world?
Regardless of who the SEC might go after, it’s apparent that the league’s basketball product needs a full-time ambassador and overseer. There’s talk that Slive already recognizes the need for such a staff member. Whether or not the league actually brings someone in as its hoops czar… remains to be seen.