Forty minutes before Louisiana State’s opening game in the Southeastern Conference tournament on Thursday, Jay Richard and son Thomas, both decked out in purple and gold, were on a mission outside New Orleans Arena. They were failing miserably.
“I have two extra tickets and I’m trying to give them away to two LSU fans,” said Jay Richard, a Baton Rouge resident. “But I can’t find any! There aren’t any. All they care about is football.”
There is electricity in the air this time of year, a sense of anticipation that builds on message boards and is fanned by daily reports on the local news. But here in SEC country, it’s a different version of March Madness.
After all, LSU’s spring football practice started last week.
The scene at New Orleans Arena on Thursday contrasted sharply with the fervor that washed over this city in early January, when Alabama beat LSU in the Bowl Championship Series national title game in what served as the SEC’s crowning achievement. With six straight BCS national titles, the SEC has cornered the market on football dominance, raising the question whether top-ranked Kentucky needs to win the men’s basketball title for the league to gain a measure of hoops credibility.
Much like coaches from other leagues do in the lead-up to Selection Sunday, SEC coaches sang the praises of their league this week. Kentucky’s John Calipari said the league could have five or six Sweet 16 teams. Alabama’s Anthony Grant campaigned for six SEC teams to make the NCAA tournament. And Mississippi’s Andy Kennedy said the league is the best it has been in his six seasons as head coach.
The question is whether the league boasts a team of consequence this season beyond Kentucky, which is an Indiana buzzer-beater away from being undefeated. As many as six SEC teams could reach the NCAA tournament, but none except for Kentucky likely will earn a top four seed without a strong performance in the conference tournament.
Every league has a tradition-rich program that needs to be strong for the league to garner a national audience, Kennedy said, and for the SEC, that team is Kentucky, whose fans outnumbered those of any other school outside the arena Thursday, even though the Wildcats were not playing until Friday’s quarterfinals.
“Because of the success of football in this league, people want to say basketball has not met that standard, which is obviously unrealistic because no one has met that standard in our sport,” Kennedy said. “Therefore they say basketball is down, which is a misperception. This year the overall balance of the league will speak volumes moving forward.”
For the SEC, there is no better pitchman than Calipari, who said the league is teeming with “terrific coaches” and abuzz with a strong level of excitement.
“No one will want to play [Tennessee] in the NCAA tournament,” Calipari said. “Who wants to play Vandy? You want to play Florida? They are going to take 25 threes. What if they make 15? You just got beat. You want to play Mississippi State, they’ve struggled? Oh, yeah?
“Go see who they’ve got and, if they get it together, go try to beat them. Alabama is going to guard you. You’re not going to get easy baskets and are going to score 60-something points. This is a strong, strong league.”
The league has seen worse days since Florida won the second of consecutive national titles in 2007; it cratered in 2009, when just three teams earned NCAA tournament berths. Worse, LSU earned the league’s best seed that year — No. 8. Last season, only two SEC teams — Kentucky and Florida — won games in the NCAA tournament.
Last season also included a Selection Sunday oddity: Alabama won the SEC’s West Division but failed to get an NCAA tournament at-large invitation because of its poor nonconference credentials. Florida Coach Billy Donovan said that prompted the league to scrap the two-division format, which had been in place since 1992, in an attempt to try to earn more NCAA tournament berths.
“That was the bottom line why we did it,” Auburn Coach Tony Barbee said. “We thought there was a perception issue with the league being two different conferences, and so we’ll tell on Sunday whether there has been a change or not.”
More change looms. With Big 12 schools Missouri and Texas A&M joining the league next season, the composition of the league — and scheduling — will change once again. Calipari said his hope is that a 14-team league will produce as many as nine NCAA tournament teams in a given year.
LSU starting guard Andre Stringer said it’s “definitely different” playing basketball at a football power, but he loves the ambience at the football home games and does not bemoan the fact that SEC football is the headlining sport. Perception-wise, though, the basketball league faces an uphill climb.
Some SEC reporters spent the minutes before tip-off Thursday criticizing the media access for spring football practice at the respective schools they cover, while others scrambled to file football stories. When LSU’s basketball game started, the number of purple-and-gold-clad fans outnumbered LSU cheerleaders — barely. Those fans included Richard and his son, a senior at LSU. Season ticket holders for football since 2002, they also attended every LSU SEC road game this past season.
On March 31, they’re headed back to New Orleans with Final Four tickets in hand, but some of their Baton Rouge neighbors may say their priorities are screwed up.
After all, that’s the date of LSU’s spring football game.