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SEC tries to regain its old luster in football country

South Carolina players celebrate after defeating Duke in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Greenville, S.C., Sunday, March 19, 2017.
South Carolina players celebrate after defeating Duke in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Greenville, S.C., Sunday, March 19, 2017. AP

Once upon a time, Alex English said, the iron of the basketball rim had the same magnetism for boys in his neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, as the iron of the football goal posts. The phenomenon of modern Southeastern Conference football — with its 100,000-seat stadiums, lucrative television deals and coaches with multimillion-dollar contracts — had not yet swallowed up basketball in the South.

“Football was just another game,” said English, 63, an eight-time NBA All-Star who played at the University of South Carolina for coach Frank McGuire, a native New Yorker with a reputation that rivaled that of any Southern football coach in the 1970s.

“Basketball was not second to football,” English said. “It was an equal for us.”

Southern universities — or at least those outside the Atlantic Coast Conference and SEC powerhouse Kentucky — have long been trying to bring back to basketball the luster that has waned in the shadow of the behemoth that is college football.

Florida won back-to-back national championships in 2006-07, and Kentucky claimed a championship in 2012, but the SEC in general has slipped in the past 10 years. The conference has received just 19 NCAA tournament bids in the past five seasons, the fewest of any of the five major conferences and fewer than the Atlantic 10 and Big East.

“We don’t need to be better than football,” English said, “but we need to be as good.”

Closing the gap

The SEC, which sent five teams to the tournament this year and was 4-1 going into the second round, took another step toward closing the gap when No. 7 South Carolina defeated an ACC blue blood — No. 2 Duke. Florida also made the Sweet 16 by defeating Virginia.

Four decades ago, English said, the colleges that encompass today’s SEC were as distinguished for their performance on the hardwood as for their performance on the gridiron.

But slowly, he said, the players in the South started to gravitate toward basketball brand names in the ACC and colleges along the East Coast. The universities they once attended, like South Carolina, became “football schools,” especially with integration opening the rosters to black high school football players.

South Carolina joined the SEC in 1991, when the conference first expanded and began truly spreading its gridiron might. SEC colleges went on to win seven straight national championships in football from 2006 to 2012. While Kentucky has held its own in the national conversation over men’s basketball, it has been a fitful ride the past 20 years for the rest of the conference. In three of the last five NCAA tournaments, the SEC has received just three bids.

“One of the things I have thought a lot about since I became commissioner is that we should be better at men’s basketball,” said Greg Sankey, who took over as the SEC commissioner last year. “When we think about baseball, we have seven, eight, 10 teams in the tournament. Women’s basketball, we have eight. We should expect that same in men’s basketball.”

Last March, Sankey hired Mike Tranghese, the former commissioner of the Big East, as a consultant to show that the SEC was serious about basketball. Three months later, Sankey hired Dan Leibovitz, once the head coach at the University of Hartford and a former assistant at Temple, Penn and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, as the associate commissioner in charge of basketball to push his point about changing the league’s culture.

“I wanted somebody with a coaching background who has lived the life of our coaches,” Sankey said.

All about relationships

Leibovitz, who has East Coast roots, noted that successful conferences like the Big East have long cultivated relationships with their top coaches. Leibovitz wants to develop the same bond in the SEC, where football coaches usually get most of the attention.

The other side of the equation is the coaches themselves. The Big East that Leibovitz mentioned had highly regarded coaches: Rollie Massimino at Villanova, Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s, John Thompson of Georgetown and others. The SEC is making strides there, too. In the past four years, SEC programs have hired Rick Barnes (Tennessee), Bruce Pearl (Auburn) and Ben Howland (Mississippi State), who have coached in a combined 90 NCAA tournament games. Alabama hired a former NBA coach, Avery Johnson.

Brainpower is one thing, but star power is another. SEC basketball needs talent to compete for the spotlight with SEC football, not to mention the basketball powerhouses of other conferences. English said there has to be a relentless recruiting push against top programs like North Carolina and Duke, the programs the SEC will see up close Sunday.

“You can’t get one or two; you have to get three really good players at the same time,” said English, whose highly rated recruiting class at South Carolina included Mike Dunleavy, who played for four NBA teams and coached four others.

English added. “You get those guys by keeping them here in the South, but they see us as football schools and we lose guys right under our nose.”