The upset secure, NCAA tourney brackets busted around the world, South Carolina coach Frank Martin said the following to ESPN following his seventh-seeded Gamecocks' shocking 88-81 East Regional win over second-seed Duke on Sunday evening:
"The SEC got us ready for this moment."
Surely not. How could such a thing be true? A football conference such as the Southeastern perfectly preparing one of its basketball teams to knock off the New York Yankees of college hoops? The SEC suddenly a tough enough proving ground to send three of its five entries into the Sweet 16 when a bastion of basketball such as the Atlantic Coast Conference is left with only one of its bloated nine invitees?
What in the name of past Dookie greats Dick Groat, Bob Verga, Mike Giminski, Gene Banks, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill is going on here? Is up now down and in now out? Is the world about to end? (And, no, that question has no political underpinning.)
But considering that South Carolina was only the third best seed of the SEC's five teams — South second seed Kentucky and East fourth seed Florida also remain alive — yet somehow pulled off the biggest upset of March Madness thus far, both the Gamecocks coaches and players, as well as the league's administrators, are due a lengthy applause.
After all, less than a year has passed since SEC commissioner Greg Sankey made the kinds of moves that only a CEO determined for both quick and lasting results makes to bolster not only its hoops image but also its competitive reality.
Knowing a sports genius when he sees it, Sankey tapped former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese — surely as smart and savvy a marketer as college athletics ever has seen, especially in the sport of basketball — to advise the conference on what it needed to do to become more of a must-see league nationally.
Sankey also brought in 42-year-old Dan Leibovitz, a former college head coach, NBA assistant and American Athletic Conference administrator who is generally regarded as one of the game's brightest and creative young minds.
Finally, weary of grumbling over the quality of SEC officiating, Sankey appointed the highly respected veteran official Mark Whitehead — he has five Final Four appearances to his credit — to overhaul one of the least praised officiating leagues in the country.
The results of those hires have been immediate and impressive. Having received only three NCAA bids in three of the past four years, the SEC had five invited this time. Having seen only one of its three entrees a year ago (Texas A&M) reach the Sweet 16, and only Kentucky advance past the first weekend in 2015, the league has three teams in the round of 16 this spring and only one of its five invitees (Vanderbilt, which led Northwestern with less than 30 seconds to play in its first-round loss) fail to win at least one game.
Wrote Sankey in a Monday email: ""It is encouraging for the SEC to have three teams competing in the Sweet Sixteen, and we came just short of having four. As I've repeatedly stated, we see progress in a lot of areas in SEC basketball — coaching, scheduling, facilities, and officiating. Real progress has been made on our campuses, but I'm hopeful we have done some things in the conference office with the addition of Dan Leibovitz on our staff and Mark Whitehead in officiating as well as Mike Tranghese as a consultant that better serves our campuses."
The sad thing is, the league's national reputation as a hoops wasteland may have long been more fiction than fact. According to Monday's Lexington Herald-Leader, the SEC entered Sunday with a NCAA tournament mark of 40-19 since 2012, when Kentucky cut down the nets for its eighth national championship.
That winning percentage of .678 before Big Blue beat Wichita State and South Carolina shocked Duke was the top winning percentage for a conference over that time. The ACC (.648) reportedly was second with the Big Ten third-best (6.29).
You would think that stat alone would deliver the league more than three bids in any given year, especially when you consider that both UK and Florida reached the 2014 Final Four, Kentucky has made it to three Final Fours in that time and both Tennessee (in 2014) and Texas A&M (last year) also have made the Sweet 16.
Yet whatever's happened in the past, the question now becomes whether this year's success will influence next year's selection committee.
"I believe we can help build and sustain the momentum," Sankey wrote. "I am excited about the remainder of this month and the future of basketball in the SEC."
For his part, Martin is trying hard not to gloat after South Carolina became the last SEC school to win its way to the Sweet 16 since the NCAA tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
"I'm never going to put down another league," he told ESPN. "I just don't like the fact that everyone wants to pick on our league."
Especially when all the facts from this past weekend, if only this past weekend, point to a brighter future for the SEC than the far more celebrated ACC.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.