NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Commissioner Mike Slive was on the Bridgestone Arena court Thursday afternoon, honoring a pair of former Southeastern Conference players.
On his left was LSU center Geert Hammink. On his right was Georgia forward Tim Bassett.
All around them was towering disinterest.
The applause for Hammink and Bassett was almost non-existent. There were about 50 LSU fans in attendance for the SEC basketball tournament second-round opener, and maybe half that number for Georgia. Mostly there were empty blue chairs.
Kentucky wasn't scheduled to play for another 30 hours, but the Wildcats still had the most fans in the building.
This is the state of the SEC. America's greatest football conference is an apathetic mess in basketball.
"I'm bullish on our basketball," Slive said. "But we appreciate the fact that the rest of the country may not see it the way we do here."
The rest of the country does not see it that way, nor do I. I've covered SEC basketball since 1990, and this is the worst I can remember the league.
The rest of the country sees a 14-team league with two secure NCAA bids (Florida and Missouri) heading into Thursday. It sees five teams on the bubble (which does at least create some tournament urgency at what I've been calling the Festival of Desperate Basketball). It sees a league that suffered non-conference losses to Mercer, Tulane, Youngstown State, Indiana State, Marist, Southern, Elon, Troy, Loyola Chicago, Alabama A&M, Rhode Island and Winthrop. It sees a league with half its members ranked 75th or lower in the Sagarin Ratings.
On the football side, Sagarin rated two SEC schools 75 or lower. And eight 25 or higher.
This is the massive disconnect in the SEC. How can a league that is so good in football – and makes so much money because of it – be so bad in basketball? How can a league that succeeds at anything it wants to – excellence in baseball, softball, swimming, track, gymnastics and so on – have so little desire to succeed in hoops?
Slive points out that the SEC has won three men's hoops national titles in his 10 years as commissioner – two by Florida and one by Kentucky, the most recent being last year.
"How many other leagues have won three national championships in the last 10 years?" he asked, and the answer is two: the Big East and ACC. "It's a hard perception to change, but we have to keep working on it and pay attention to it."
Here's the problem: after title winners Kentucky and Florida, the pool of competitive programs is not deep. And it has been getting shallower in recent years.
From 2002-08, the SEC averaged 5.7 NCAA tourney bids per year. In the past four years, it has averaged four. That drop of nearly two bids per year is emblematic of the league's shrinking reservoir of quality teams.
So what has happened? Mostly, the fans just don't seem to care. If they did, they'd demand better, the way they do in football. Mississippi fans may demand an NCAA tournament bid at least once in Andy Kennedy's first six years on the job. South Carolina fans might be more dismayed about a nine-year streak without a bid. Auburn's streak is at 10, but it's unclear whether anyone on The Plains has noticed.
It's almost as if the better the football gets, the less anyone pays attention to basketball.
Attendance in 2013 is down at 10 of 14 schools – down 1,000 or more per game on average at Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M (new to the conference) and Vanderbilt.
Even at Florida, where the Gators are admirably consistent under Billy Donovan, there are routinely empty seats at home games. That's preposterous on a campus that size, with a program that good.
Instead of going to basketball games, SEC fans seem to be spending December, January and early February following football recruiting. Then spring practice has become a cottage industry in its own right. And pro days have even become a big deal on campuses, used as a vehicle to further publicize the fact that the SEC is the most direct route to the NFL.
The NFL has figured out how to take over the entire calendar year. And the SEC isn't far behind. The fans are embracing off-field football as a means of avoiding in-season basketball.
When the tourney opened here with a doubleheader Wednesday night, the attendance was 7,879 – the smallest single-session crowd in SEC tourney history. That's mostly due to the fact that all four teams playing (Mississippi State, South Carolina, Auburn and Texas A&M) were terrible. However, that's also the price of expansion – if you go up to 14 teams, you create an extra round of games between flotsam and jetsam.
Even with Tennessee playing a must-win game in its home state Thursday afternoon, the session drew just 10,065 – what would be an unforgivably small crowd at any spring football game. And again, a good portion of that Thursday crowd was wearing Kentucky blue.
There are other factors in the SEC's hoops crisis, of course.
One is keeping good players local. Ohio State is in the top 10 with a pair of key contributors from the South: LaQuinton Ross from Mississippi and Shannon Scott from Georgia. Mississippian Romero Osby is starring at NCAA-bound Oklahoma after languishing for two years under Rick Stansbury at Mississippi State. Georgian Jordan Adams has been an instant-impact star at UCLA. Wichita State's best all-around player might be Malcolm Armstead of Florence, Ala.
And the feeder systems are more suspect in the South than just about anywhere else. The coaching is not great at the high school level, and less so on the AAU level. There are too many operators in charge of AAU teams and not enough people who know how to coach and teach basketball. Thus there are a ton of athletes lacking skill on the rosters in the SEC.
Slive told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday that the league will formally announce its new SEC Network about a month from now. That will be a huge new revenue stream for a conference that already prints money in its sleep.
Hopefully some of that can be spent with the same facility-upgrade and coaching-salary zeal as it is in football. But until the fans show they care, don't expect much to change.
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