For the SEC, the work has gone on well beyond just individual programs trying to make basketball a higher priority and being better at it. The conference wants to deliver in the high profile sport as well.
Commissioner Mike Slive set out to make it a priority a couple of years ago and new commissioner Greg Sankey has continued that quest. Among the things that were looked at were changing the difficulty of the league’s non-conference schedule.
The Gators are a prime example with a top ten strength of schedule that was really took a hit when they went into league play. Florida played on the road to start the season, mainly because of the renovations to the O’Connell Center, but the level of opponent was high and so it paid dividends in perception of the squad, especially when they were beating some of those teams away from home.
The league hired Mike Tranghese to overlook the Men’s Basketball programs in the conference and help advise how to accentuate the conference’s programs. The former Big East commissioner was brought on in March of 2016 and should be considered a big part of the advancement of the conference in the sport.
Tranghese doesn’t seem to be hands on, but he has the attention of the SEC coaches.
“I have had minimal conversation with Mike at SEC meetings,” Florida head coach Mike White said Saturday as his Gators prepare to play fellow SEC foe South Carolina in an Elite Eight match up. “We texted, actually, a little bit back and forth, just small talk. I know that he's a tremendous addition to the SEC staff. And I don't even understand all of the ways, but I know that he's had incredible success in college basketball, of course. He's been a great leader; he's got an incredible reputation.”
Last summer the SEC further moved in the same direction by bringing in one of the most respected officials in college basketball to coordinate the basketball officials in the conference. Mark Whitehead was announced after a stellar career of officiating himself.
“When I was a young head coach, not knowing what the heck's going on, still learning on the fly, of course, I thought Mark Whitehead was the best official in the country,” White said. “I thought he was off the charts. He didn't miss a call, his demeanor was incredible, and now he's heading these officials and mentoring them and educating them. So, I don't know how that hurts. I think it's got to really help.
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It all comes together to just show the resolve that the conference has in making this conference a better one in the sport. That was demonstrated by getting five teams in the NCAA Tournament field and now in the Elite Eight.
I mean I think that there's a strong commitment, I really do, there's a been an -- I had a lot of conversation with Greg, I had a lot of conversation with (associate commissioner Dan Leibovitz), he's been on campus a bunch, Greg's been at a bunch of our games. It's in their best interests to do whatever they have got to do to figure this thing out to help the SEC become the best basketball league in the country.”
The SEC is suddenly thrust into the spotlight in 2017. Three teams remain and no other conference has more than one. This weekend there is a lot of talk about the league because of this accomplishment. The Gator players have seen it the other way for too long.
“The amount that other conferences get talked about, being the best conference,” junior guard Chris Chiozza said when asked about his thoughts on the perception of the conference in the sport. “They don't really give the SEC any credit for being the best conference, but we have three teams in the Elite 8, so that speaks for itself right there.
“(It kind of) proves the point that we can actually compete in terms of being a power conference, having three out of the eight teams that would be from the SEC has proven that we have made it here,” sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes said.
Then there is that perception that goes on at most SEC schools. Football is the king in the SEC and at most schools in the SEC. Basketball seems to take a backseat to the grid iron. Senior guard Kasey Hill thinks the success of the SEC in basketball as well as at Florida should really resonate within the programs.
“It's not just a football school anymore… or a football conference,” Hill said. “So it's turned into a basketball conference.”
That is a little bit too far of course, but Mike White really actually sees Florida in a whole different light, brought on by the success of the total athletic programs at the school.
“I can speak to Florida more specifically than any other place, I mean, this place we have won a ton of championships. (Athletic Director Scott Stricklin) will win a bunch himself, (former AD) Jeremy Foley won a bunch himself, so to call it a football school is I think, a slap in the face to all those other sports.
“And to (former coach Billy Donovan), who won a couple national championships himself. And we're not the only school that’s had a high level of success in all sports in our league. Is football incredible? Absolutely. We love watching it. But SEC basketball's pretty special as well.”
In the end, if the conference teams keep taking care of business, the perceptions of the programs in the conference will grow. The SEC in the preseason was disrespected as much as anyone. The selection committee thought enough of what the conference did in the regular season to invite five teams to the dance.
As a program, Florida took care of its own business, but maybe a team or two in the conference was left out of the tournament because of perception. For White, he can control what he can control.
“As the perception continues to increase and we are more welcomed amongst the higher level leagues in the country, we’ve been there before, and we're certainly on our way back in our opinion,” he said. “I don't think it hurts at all.
“But honestly, it's not something that I put a lot of stock into. It doesn't affect recruiting much for us, it doesn't -- these guys, their approach to East Tennessee State, Virginia, Wisconsin, now South Carolina… that approach has nothing to do with what people say about our league.
“Even if the computer rankings had us first in the country, say mid next season, which we very well could be, and people continue to say this about the SEC and this about the ACC, whatever. I don't know how much any of that matters, I really don't. The selection committee's going to do a terrific job regardless, we're going to be the Florida Gators regardless and do the best we can do.”
One thing we do know is that there won’t be three SEC teams in the Final Four. With Florida and South Carolina playing each other Sunday at 2:20 p.m. on CBS, one will be eliminated. But it also means there will be at least one team in the Final Four not named Kentucky.
Not many thought that could happen before the season started, but maybe next year they will.