SEC basketball is a realm in which many schools have comparatively barren traditions and histories. This reality is understandable in a conference where football is king and baseball or gymnastics often take second place.
I have a good friend in the online sports content business who used to work with me at a previous college sports site I edited. He loves his LSU basketball and characterized this feel-good season (before the Will Wade story blew up) in tweet-based form:
It's truly great seeing LSU fans so excited about hoops because this is how it felt as an LSU basketball fan for 20+ years: pic.twitter.com/aZlRvyj8K1
— Chris Abshire (@ChrisAbshire) January 31, 2019
That tweet is representative of the place basketball occupies on a cultural level at some (not all) SEC schools. When a sport is not at the top of the cultural hierarchy, it is easy for that sport to languish. Football carries the cultural weight in the Southeastern United States, and baseball has been another big point of focus in the conference for some time, especially at LSU. Vanderbilt and Florida have been hugely successful this century.
Only recently has the SEC — once a great basketball conference in the 1990s — placed renewed emphasis on improving its basketball brand. We have seen the influence of consultant (and former Big East Commissioner) Mike Tranghese on the league’s coaching hires. Those hires have, in turn, boosted the depth and strength of the league.
Nowhere has that impact been felt more strongly in 2019 than in the state of Mississippi.
The Magnolia State represents the underclass of SEC basketball. Ole Miss has made only eight NCAA Tournaments in its history. It has made the Sweet 16 only once and has never reached the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four. The Rebels have made the round of 32 only three times. The program has won only five NCAA Tournament games, one of them in the First Four in Dayton.
The program’s golden era lasted from 1997 through 2002. In those six seasons, Ole Miss made five of its eight NCAA trips and reached its one Sweet 16. Three of the program’s five NCAA Tournament wins came during that period. Ole Miss’s first NCAA Tournament win came in that period (1999). Rob Evans got the party started, and Rod Barnes — now the coach at California State Bakersfield in the WAC — continued it.
Other than that golden era, Ole Miss has made only three other NCAA Tournaments. Had Marshall Henderson not caught fire in the 2013 SEC Tournament, Ole Miss probably would have fired Andy Kennedy before the former Bob Huggins assistant had another chance to make the Big Dance. As it was, Henderson won the 2013 SEC Tournament. Ole Miss made the field and won one NCAA Tournament game before losing to 13th-seeded La Salle in the round of 32.
Other than the 1997-2002 era, that is EASILY Ole Miss’s BEST NCAA TOURNAMENT MOMENT.
That puts Ole Miss hoops history in perspective.
For Mississippi State, the story is not that different. The Bulldogs have a better history than Ole Miss in college hoops, but not by a noticeably large margin: two more Sweet 16s (3-1), three more round-of-32 appearances (6-3), and more NCAA Tournament appearances (10-8).
The Bulldogs have won more than one game in an NCAA Tournament only twice: in 1995 and 1996 under then-coach Richard Williams. The majority of MSU’s 11 NCAA Tournament wins (6) comes from those two NCAA Tournament runs: two wins in 1995, and four in the dash to the 1996 Final Four in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The years 1995-2009 — 15 seasons — comprise eight of the program’s 10 NCAA Tournament berths. Rick Stansbury — a gifted recruiter but a mediocre in-game coach — has made six of the program’s 10 NCAA Tournaments.
Given that the two Mississippi schools have rarely been great in college basketball, it should not be a shock that there has been only one season in which both schools made the same NCAA Tournament: 2002.
That fact will soon recede into the history books, however. Both Ben Howland at Mississippi State and Kermit Davis at Ole Miss will take their teams into the 2019 NCAA Tournament. MSU has been safe for a few weeks. Ole Miss pretty much nailed down its at-large bid by avoiding a loss at Missouri this past Saturday.
Does any of this mean that college basketball will gain more cultural centrality in Starkville or Oxford? I don’t know… but this certainly gives the sport a greater chance to grow in the land where football is king… and baseball is often the prince.
The SEC’s increased investments in basketball have certainly delivered results.
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