During a recent trip through the triangle in North Carolina, I found myself in the midst of Atlantic Coast Conference tournament fever.
The tournament was in Greensboro and the atmosphere in the area was electric.
The ACC tournament is the grandfather of conference tournaments. It is perennially the king.
Folks tell me how back in the day, they would skip school to watch the ACC tournament. It was like NCAA tournament week today.
Decades ago, the NCAA field was 16 teams (eventually 24) and a far cry from March Madness. Because of the limited NCAA field, only the ACC tournament champion went to the tournament. The ACC was the best basketball conference in the country and it was a free-for-all with the season at stake.
Many in the area can tell you of great games involving players like Virginia’s Ralph Sampson, North Carolina State’s David Thompson, Duke’s Art Heyman and North Carolina’s Billy Cunningham.
In those days, conference tournaments were for survival.
Nowadays, the good teams, particularly from the ACC, are assurred the NCAA field. Conference tournaments are for seeding, for the fan experience and for money and TV rights.
But the ACC, because of many longstanding basketball rivalries with schools in proximity, attracts as much of an NCAA atmosphere was any conference tournament. It’s basketball country with a conference with a longstanding legacy of bigtime basketball.
The SEC tournament is like many other conference tournaments — an event rather than a "war."
Kentucky and its fans have dominated the tournament for years. I had an uncle, a Mississippi State fan, who (along with his friends) would pledge to never sell their tickets to Kentucky fans if the Bulldogs were eliminated. Arkansas and its fans challenged the Kentucky bluebloods at times in the 1990s.
And this year, Kentucky plunged into inconsistency and so-so — not even making the NCAA tournament and one-and-done in the NIT. Anti-Kentucky folks shouldn’t get too giddy. Coach John Calipari has recruited a class that many rate possibly the best recruiting class in college basketball history.
This year, Vanderbilt attracted some excitement by pounding Kentucky in the SEC tournament. Ole Miss has had its fans hoisting hotty toddies with its run through the SEC tourney and a 12-5 upset in the NCAA.
Aside from occasional sparks, the SEC was medicore in college basketball this season. In quality of teams and quality of play, it was more on the level of a mid-major conference although I’m not sure how to rate conferences anymore. For example, through late in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, Atlantic 10 teams were 5-0.
What is hurting the SEC is, through the breadth of the league with only a few exceptions is it is a considered a football conference. Football is and will probably always be king in the region. You can bet recruiters from other conferences tell prospects that.
The league’s basketball coaches, and there are some good ones, can say all they want, but the mindset at so many of the schools in the league, basketball is just a temporary distraction between football recruiting and spring football. It shows in the attendance even when teams are good. And Wednesday night TV games this season have been a steady run of ho-hum basketball.
Basketball has a way to go in the SEC and it will require a longterm change of culture.
Basketball is the is the highway through the heart of ACC country. In the SEC, other than Kentucky and sometimes Arkansas, it’s a bypass.
Too often March Madness is really March Sadness.
And along comes spring football.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)