When the participants in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were revealed March 13, the Southeastern Conference had three teams in the 68-team field — barely.
Kentucky, of course, was in with the SEC’s automatic bid in hand after winning the league tournament, and Texas A&M was a no-doubter to receive an at-large invitation with 26 wins highlighting its impressive résumé.
Then there was Vanderbilt. The Commodores were one of the last four in the field and thus had to play in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio — marking the second straight year the conference sent a team there.
Long before those schools popped up on the bracket, the third time in the past four seasons the SEC got just three teams in, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey had taken a step to ensure his league will have greater representation in the future.
It may have only seemed like Sankey had former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese on speed dial when he announced March 15 the appointment of Tranghese as a special advisor to the commissioner for men’s basketball.
Even though the announcement came, interestingly enough, on the day Vanderbilt was ousted by Wichita State in the First Four, Sankey talked to Tranghese as far back as December before Tranghese agreed to help in February.
“Greg asked me what my thoughts were, and I told him,” Tranghese said Thursday from his home in Providence, Rhode Island.
“With a group of schools with the kind of resources and facilities (the SEC has), getting two or three teams into the tournament on an annual basis would not be an acceptable goal, if you’re asking me for my opinion,” Tranghese said he told Sankey. “He asked me if I would consider coming on board, and I told him I’d be glad to try and do anything I could to help.”
“As a conference, we seek continuing improvement in the national competitive success of our men’s basketball programs,” Sankey said in naming Tranghese a special advisor. “Mike’s knowledge and experience will be an asset for me, our staff and the athletics programs of the SEC as we accelerate our men’s basketball enhancement efforts.”
“Any time the league is proactive in trying to develop a situation where we get more teams in the (NCAA) tournament is a good thing,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of Tranghese’s addition. “Anything we can do to enhance, or help that, is always a good thing.”
In getting the 72-year-old Tranghese, Sankey found a man with nearly a half-century of college sports expertise — most of it in basketball, although he was a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee the past two years after working on the Bowl Championship Series.
Tranghese is best known for working alongside the late Dave Gavitt when Gavitt created the Big East Conference in 1979; the duo quickly turned it into a national basketball power with the help of ESPN.
Tranghese succeeded Gavitt as the league’s commissioner in 1990 and spent nearly two decades on the job — which included bringing football to the league — before retiring in 2009.
While Big East commissioner, Tranghese served a five-year term on the NCAA selection committee and chaired it in his final season in 2001 — which is partly why Sankey, in his first year as SEC commissioner, came calling.
“We had a brief conversation in December, and then we had a pretty extensive conversation in January about all this,” Tranghese said. “Greg was expressing the fact that he felt the SEC, as a conference, should be doing better. Ultimately, the fact that they qualified only three teams for the (NCAA) tournament was just not acceptable to him.”
Tranghese’s task: Upgrade schedules and work with administrators and coaches to come up with advice and suggestions with a goal of making the league’s 14 teams more attractive to the NCAA committee on Selection Sunday.
From 1997 to 2008, the SEC averaged 5.7 teams in the tournament. It had six participants in eight seasons and no fewer than five teams in the other four years.
From 2009 to 2016, the average dropped to 3.8 teams, with a maximum of five teams in just two seasons (2011 and ’15).
“I have no illusions about this. … I’m there just to observe all the things they’re doing and to offer opinions as to how some of these things can get better,” Tranghese said. “But, at the end of the day, how much the institutions are going to win will basically be determined by coaches and players.
“That’s never going to change, even if we put in all the rules we want. I think Greg wants to be as supportive from the conference side as he possibly can be. So I’m just going to look at a lot of these things.”
Along those lines, Tranghese said he liked the hires SEC schools have made the past two seasons — like Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Mississippi State’s Ben Howland, Florida’s Mike White, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes and Alabama’s Avery Johnson.
“I told Greg that the SEC last year took a positive step forward because of the coaching hires — some really good hires,” Tranghese said. “I thought that was a really, really positive step.”
Even though he’s still recuperating from two operations since December, the first for appendicitis and the second to remove a cancerous tumor found during the first surgery, Tranghese has rolled up his sleeves and is ready to work.
“I’m recuperating; I’m fine,” he said before managing a laugh. “You know how you wonder how people feel when they hit the lottery? Now I know, because I got a call from the doctor and he said, ‘We got it.’ I didn’t have to have chemo or anything.”
So far, Tranghese hasn’t had a lot of time to go over the materials SEC associate commissioners Mark Whitworth and Herb Vincent have sent to him. But he said he plans on getting up to speed real soon.
“I’m in the process of reading that, and eventually I’ll meet all the people (at the league),” said Tranghese, who noted that he won’t be able to travel until May. “Hopefully I can be of some help.”
Sankey is counting on it.
Tranghese said he’s obviously a college basketball fan and watched a lot of games on TV while recuperating the past few months. As a result, he got to see some of the SEC’s struggles in trying to get to the NCAA tournament.
Part of it had to do with scheduling, which he said has gotten better in the past two seasons after league schools received a mandate from former commissioner Mike Slive to beef up their nonconference slates.
Still, half the conference finished with a strength of schedule of 50th or worse, according to ESPN’s calculations. That included South Carolina’s 159th and Ole Miss’ 172nd, which likely kept them out of the NCAA tournament even though they both won more than 20 games.
LSU’s strength of schedule ranked 79th, but the Tigers finished 19-14 with a 7-6 record against nonconference opposition.
“Hopefully I can offer insight into how teams make up their schedule,” Tranghese said. “A lot of that’s been done the last couple of years, but some people have done a good job and others probably haven’t. We’ll just reinforce some things Mark Whitworth and his people have been telling the coaches.”
Another issue: The SEC was 20-47 this season against teams from the other “Power Five” conferences, plus the Big East. The last hit the league took was Texas A&M’s 77-63 loss to Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
While winning on the sport’s biggest stage is obviously important, both Sankey and Tranghese know the first step is getting there.
“You know how you hear the coaches talk about the NCAA tournament — like who gets in and who doesn’t get in, and the seedings?” Tranghese said. “When we meet with the coaches, I can tell them: ‘I’ve been in the room. I’ve been the chair of the committee.’ Hopefully I can share a lot of my experiences with them and point out to them what’s important and what’s not important.”
Again, he said, that’s just part of his job.
“We’re going to look at anything — anything we can do to make the league better,” Tranghese said. “That’s what we’re going to do, you know, watch games and observe and offer insights. This isn’t rocket science.”
NOT A GOOD LOOK
SEC teams went 20-47 against teams from the other “Power Five” conferences, plus the Big East. The team-by-team breakdown:
South Carolina: 3-1
Texas A&M: 4-3
Ole Miss: 0-2
Mississippi State: 0-3