Tennessee makes it official, hires ex-Texas coach Rick Barnes _lowres

Now in his third season at Tennessee, Rick Barnes has steered his team into the SEC tournament championship game and will earn one of a league-record eight NCAA tournament bids on Sunday.

Wayde Payne

By now, you’ve all seen and heard the slogan the Southeastern Conference adopted nearly two years ago.

The “It Just Means More” campaign was meant to tell the story of the league’s member institutions and their communities from a cultural and historical perspective rather than just athletics.

But “more” will apply to the athletics side as well Sunday afternoon when the 68-team field is revealed for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The SEC is almost certain to set a league record for bids with eight locks in the eyes of most who project brackets. The most the conference has sent to the men’s tournament is six teams, which it has done nine times.

It’s been a full decade since that happened, however, which is why SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, like predecessor Mike Slive, took steps to ensure the league is known for more than just its football prowess.

In March 2016, just days after the league received just three tournament bids, Sankey announced that retired Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, a former NCAA selection committee chairman, would be a special adviser for men’s basketball.

Six months later, Sankey brought in Dan Leibovitz, a former college coach and NBA assistant, as an associate commissioner for men’s basketball. He charged both men with getting the SEC to where he believed it should be nationally.

Their task: Greatly upgrade the nonconference schedules, which Slive mandated before he retired, and work with coaches on making sure the league’s teams are more attractive to the NCAA committee each March.

“Two years ago, I don’t think it was a new belief or new statement, but I heard about it being a football conference and all of the challenges and obstacles,” Leibovitz said Saturday. “I don’t want to make it seem like Mike and I performed a miracle; we just came in and said we didn’t buy it.

“We didn’t buy it was mutually exclusive that you can only be good at one.”

After all, it had been done before.

From 1997 to 2008, the SEC averaged 5.7 teams a year in the tournament, with six participants in eight different seasons during that 12-year span and never fewer than five teams.

From 2009 to 2017, however, the average dropped to 3.8 teams with a maximum of five teams just twice, in 2011 and 2015.

It all came to a head when the league received three NCAA bids in 2016, marking the third time in four seasons that happened.

“When Greg called me to come in and take a look at it, he really made it a priority for them to get better,” Tranghese said. “I said, ‘Greg, there’s some things we can do internally, but I’m flabbergasted that there are people who actually think the SEC can’t win in basketball.’ I was taken aback by that.

“With the SEC’s resources and its great fan base, I thought that was ridiculous,” he said. “I believe all the negativity had beaten down a lot of people, and I know the coaches were beaten down by it. They were being told they couldn’t win because it was a football league, and I told Greg that was the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

In addition to changing perception and scheduling, Tranghese said the hiring of coaches was crucial.

He noted that Florida’s Mike White, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes and Mississippi State Ben Howland were already in place when he came in, and it continued with the hiring of Vanderbilt’s Bryce Drew, Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin and LSU’s Will Wade the past two seasons.

“I know Mike, Rick and Ben, so I told Greg his league was better already,” Tranghese said. “What’s happened is we’ve made some really good coaching hires, and the most important thing about having a good program and a successful conference that wins basketball games is having good coaches.”

It showed a year ago when the SEC got five teams into the tournament and had success in combining for an 11-5 record.

South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida all advanced to the Elite Eight, and Carolina got to the Final Four before losing in the national semifinals.

While Leibovitz and Tranghese both said it’s not about them, they couldn’t help but smile when that happened. The SEC might well have gotten two into the Final Four had Florida and South Carolina not met in the regional final.

While nothing is official other than the tournament champion having an automatic bid, Leibovitz feels comfortable eight teams will get in Sunday — Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama and Texas A&M.

Another two or three SEC teams, including LSU, could garner NIT berths.

“That would be tremendous … that would be great,” Leibovitz said. “We had those runs last year in the NCAA tournament, and you think we’re turning the corner. I don’t know if we could have predicted it would be this good this soon, so it would be very gratifying. But we want to sustain it and keep going.”

Tranghese, 75, was confident it could happen even after three friends questioned him when it was announced he was going to be a consultant for the SEC.

“I had one guy say to me, ‘Are you that hard up for money?’ ” Tranghese said with a chuckle, noting it started with his respect for Sankey. “I said, ‘There are no ifs, ands or buts about the fact that the SEC will win in basketball because it has too many things going for it. I think that’s proven to be the case.”

SEC in the NCAA tournament since 2000

Year/Bids/Sweet 16/Elite Eight/Final Four/Titles/Record

2000: 6   3   1   1   0   11-6

2001: 6   2   0   0   0   5-6

2002: 6   1   0   0   0   5-6

2003: 6   1   1   0   0   6-6

2004: 6   2   1   0   0   7-6

2005: 5   1   1   0   0   5-5

2006: 6   2   2   2   1   13-5

2007: 5   3   1   1   1   11-4

2008: 6   1   0   0   0   4-6

2009: 3   0   0   0   0   1-3

2010: 4   2   2   0   0   6-4

2011: 5   2   2   1   0   7-5

2012: 4   2   2   1   1   10-3

2013: 3   1   0   0   0   4-3

2014: 3   3   2   2   0   12-3

2015: 5   1   1   1   0   6-5

2016: 3   1   0   0   0   3-3

2017: 5   3   3   2   1   11-5

Totals: 87  31   19   11   4   127-84

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.