By Ray Glier – for The New York Times
March 18, 2017
GREENVILLE, S.C. — Once upon a time, Alex English said, the iron of the basketball rim had the same magnetism for boys in his neighborhood in Columbia, S.C., 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 N.B.A. 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 the 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 2006-7, and Kentucky claimed a championship in 2012, but the SEC in general has slipped in the last 10 years. The conference has received just 19 N.C.A.A. tournament bids in the last 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.”
The SEC, which sent five teams to the tournament this year and was 4-1 going into the second round, can take another step toward closing the gap here Sunday in the round of 32. Two SEC programs — No. 8 seed Arkansas and No. 7 South Carolina — will meet two of college basketball’s A.C.C. blue bloods when the Razorbacks face No. 1 seed North Carolina and the Gamecocks play No. 2 Duke.
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 A.C.C. 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 last 20 years for the rest of the conference. In three of the last five N.C.A.A. 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 N.B.A.’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.
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 last four years, SEC programs have hired Rick Barnes (Tennessee), Bruce Pearl (Auburn) and Ben Howland (Mississippi State), who have coached in a combined 90 N.C.A.A. tournament games. Alabama hired a former N.B.A. 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 on 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 N.B.A. 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.”
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