A television interview with SEC commissioner Mike Slive quickly turned to football Friday night between SEC tournament basketball games.
No surprise there. When the conference wants to put its best foot forward, it puts on cleats — regardless of the venue.
The Bridgestone Arena merely provided a curious backdrop when the BCS questions popped up in the midst of March Madness.
Imagine an interview following the same course in the Big East or the ACC. It would have made as much sense as questions about World Cup soccer.
It didn’t seem out of line in the SEC, though. Not after seven consecutive national championships in football.
Not after the previous two games of the SEC basketball tournament.
SEC football is all about coming up big in the most crucial games. That’s why Slive must have been shaking his head off camera after the first three quarterfinal games.
Both Tennessee (20-12) and Kentucky (21-11) were tantalizingly close to the NCAA tournament, whose field will be announced today. One more victory likely would have left them in the good graces of the selection committee.
So what happened?
The Vols missed 22 of 29 shots in the second half and lost to Alabama 58-48.
UT’s play was practically glorious compared to Kentucky’s. The defending national champs looked as hopelessly adrift in a 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt as they did in a 30-point, regular-season defeat at Thompson-Boling Arena.
After the Vols’ clunker, Skylar McBee pointed out, “it stinks” to think just one game could wreck a possible NCAA venture.
It doesn’t, unless — as in the case of both Tennessee and Kentucky — your margin for error is as perilously thin as tournament-bracket gurus suggest.
So the Vols stumbled into the weekend as an NCAA tournament long shot, though probably not as long as Kentucky. Wonder how many teams have beaten the Wildcats by 30 points and not made the NCAA tournament?
But there was so much more to overcome in the SEC this season. It was the antithesis of football, where the glowing perception of the league props up everybody in it.
Auburn lost 23 games. Mississippi State lost 22. South Carolina lost 18. Georgia and Vanderbilt each lost 17 games.
And in many cases, the non-conference schedules were more damning than the records.
Ever since serving on the selection committee, Slive has challenged teams to upgrade their non-conference schedules. The plea has been lost on most of them.
UT is an exception, as exemplified by a non-conference schedule that included Georgetown, Oklahoma State, Wichita State, Memphis and Virginia — five teams who have combined to average 25 wins. The Vols beat only Wichita State, but they played No. 5 Georgetown to a one-point game on the road.
The non-conference schedule was a plus. The SEC wasn’t.
But even if the Vols and Wildcats fall short of the NCAA tournament, the weekend won’t be a total washout for the SEC. Credit Ole Miss for that.
If Ole Miss hadn’t beaten Missouri in the quarterfinals Friday night, the league would have been in danger of having only two teams (Florida and Missouri) in the tournament.
The Rebels summoned the kind of effort that UT and Kentucky couldn’t, overcoming a 14-point deficit to win in the final seconds. They followed that up with victory No. 25, against Vanderbilt in Saturday’s semifinals.
Their football team should be proud.