It was a year ago this week when the SEC hired Mike Tranghese, once the commissioner of the Big East, as a consultant on basketball. The league of Kentucky (eight national championships) and Florida (two) dispatched only three teams to the 2016 NCAA tournament, one of which was gone after the First Four.
Said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, speaking on March 15, 2016: “The reality is that we’re back with only three (NCAA teams) for the third time in four years.”
This year the nation’s mightiest football league did a bit better. Five SEC teams made the Big Dance. (The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East all had more.) Only Vanderbilt was eliminated in Round 1, that occurring when a player representing the Harvard of the South lost track of the score.
In the first and last games here Friday, SEC teams outfought opponents from the Big East, home of the 2016 national champ. Arkansas trumped Seton Hall 77-71 in a careening game. South Carolina, which entered having lost six of nine games, obliterated Marquette over the final eight minutes, turning a five-point lead into a 93-73 show of force. Which brings us to Sunday’s Round of 32.
Arkansas will face No. 1 seed North Carolina here. Then South Carolina, an ACC charter member that left the conference in 1971, will meet No. 2 Duke. This ACC/SEC Challenge will be staged in one of four states with both an ACC and an SEC school. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils are expected to win, but what if they don’t? What if a mighty team from the Basketball League gets sacked by King Football?
To be fair, the reverse has happened twice in the past four football title tilts: Florida State over Auburn in January 2014, Clemson over Alabama two months ago. But SEC hoops, with the exception of Kentucky and Florida, has showed so little over the past decade — the last non-Kentucky, non-Florida SEC team to reach the Final Four was LSU in 2006 — that Sankey felt the need to pick Tranghese’s brain. The ACC has long led the world in basketball brainpower.
Of Sunday’s games, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said: “It’s an opportunity for us. We had five teams, (could) possibly have had six or seven teams in the tournament. And it’s what you do once you get into the tournament. South Carolina had an outstanding game last night. Vanderbilt was probably one play away from winning as well.”
Then: “The commitment from the SEC has been awesome from the institutions with the coaches they’re bringing in. You’re going to see a big difference. We’re seeing it right now. It’s starting to scratch the surface. It’s just a sign of some great things to come.”
Said South Carolina coach Frank Martin: “All of us in the SEC understand that we’re carrying a banner just a little bigger than any one team. There’s no question we’re in a real good league. We don’t take a back seat to anybody. … As coaches, we’re taking pride in trying to change the message about the SEC being inferior to other leagues.”
Of the two SEC representatives, Arkansas would seem to have the lesser chance. The Razorbacks live to go fast, but nobody plays better faster than North Carolina. And the Heels are massive. Asked about their rebounding prowess, Anderson fairly cried: “They’ve got eight pros! When you’ve got eight pros, you can go get it.”
Still, Anderson recalled a time — in 2004 when he was coaching UAB — that a No. 1 seed was ousted in Round 2. His Blazers did the deed against Kentucky. (That game cleared a path for Georgia Tech to crash the Final Four.) Said Anderson: “It was David vs. Goliath. We threw a mighty big blow.”
South Carolina has a puncher’s chance. You have to slow Duke to beat it, and the Gamecocks have, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the nation’s third-best defense. They wore the possessor of the No. 9 offense to a frazzle Friday night. Marquette scored 63 points over the first 30 minutes, 10 over the final 10. South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell scored 10 himself over that span, finishing with 29. (“The best unheralded great player in the United States,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called him.)
The Gamecocks’ first NCAA victory since 1973 came before a raucous crowd. These games were moved from Greensboro due to North Carolina’s bathroom-rights bill. The Heels and Devils have grown accustomed to playing sub-regional games before home-state gatherings. Bon Secours Wellness Arena isn’t far from North Carolina, but it isn’t in North Carolina.
Memory lane: On March 11, 1979, North Carolina lost to Penn and Duke was beaten by St. John’s in an NCAA doubleheader staged in Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum. In ACC circles, that’s still known as Black Sunday. Imagine if the same two blue bloods lose in one gym on a different Sunday — and are serenaded with the chant of “SEC! SEC!” afterward.