DESTIN, Fla. (AP) Former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese proved his commitment to the Southeastern Conference with one simple task this week: He boarded a plane.
Tranghese is terrified of flying. It’s one of the reasons he retired as a conference administrator. So making the trip to the SEC’s annual spring meetings was no easy feat for him.
Improving the league’s basketball profile and NCAA Tournament presence could be an even more challenging endeavor.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey hired Tranghese as a “special advisor to the commissioner for men’s basketball.” In short, Tranghese was brought aboard to turn around the SEC’s hoops fortunes. He spoke to coaches and athletic directors for the first time at the league meetings this week and drew praise for his plans to help the league’s 14 basketball teams close the gap on their football counterparts.
The SEC landed just three teams in the 2016 NCAA Tournament for the third time in the last four years. Six conferences received more bids in March, and four of those had seven teams make the field.
“The league is capable of doing so much more than it did this year,” Tranghese said.
Tranghese has some ideas to make it happen. It starts with scheduling games against better competition and winning more of those key, non-conference matchups. But Tranghese also wants coaches to work together to expand the SEC brand.
They are planning to televise a weekly basketball show on the SEC Network, and Tranghese encouraged them to embrace (instead of complain about) late games on television and use football as a recruiting tool.
“You’ve got to use it in your favor,” Tranghese said. “If I’m bringing a recruit in, do I want to bring him in the weekend of the Tennessee-Alabama football game versus somebody who doesn’t have football? You bet your life I do. Because you have the best football league in the country doesn’t mean you can’t be good in basketball. That’s an excuse.
“Get rid of all those negative perceptions. … Because you’re better than they are at football, kids shouldn’t come here? It’s illogical. If fact, I would argue you should come here. It’s something to do on fall weekends, something really good to do on fall weekends.”
Tranghese was former Big East Commissioner Dave Gavitt’s right-hand man when the league formed in 1979 and helped make it as much a basketball power as the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“The Big East was step-children to the Big Ten and the ACC back in the day, and the Big East didn’t take a back seat to anybody,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “And that was sort of the attitude that he brought to the meeting, that the reason he’s taking on this challenge is he believes in our league, he believes in our coaches, he believes in our commissioner and he wants to win.”
Texas A&M, Kentucky and Vanderbilt made the 2016 tournament, but only the Aggies advanced beyond the first weekend.
Tranghese insists the SEC has the foundation for better results. With high-profile coaches Rick Barnes (Tennessee), Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Avery Johnson (Alabama) entering their second seasons, and Pearl beginning his third, those programs could be on the verge of getting back to national prominence.
Florida and South Carolina might be even closer. Both were considered locks for the tournament in February, but the Gators had a four-game losing streak late in the regular season and the Gamecocks were done in by losing in the first round of the SEC tournament.
“It’s unfortunate that a couple late-season losses wiped some teams out, and it probably shouldn’t have,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
The Gamecocks could be the poster child for the league’s non-conference scheduling issue. Coach Frank Martin’s team went 12-0 outside the SEC last season, but its non-conference schedule was ranked as low as 271st.
The SEC has since tweaked its non-conference scheduling rules, saying everyone’s opponents must have a three-year RPI average of 175 or better. That number will drop to 150 in the future.
“If you can’t beat decent people, you don’t deserve to be in the tournament anyway,” Tranghese said. “So play them. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Everything.”