SEC Basketball … The Good. The Bad! And The Ugly.

Lyn Scarbrough

March 14, 2022 at 2:10 pm.

College basketball has long been a passion of mine.

My first college basketball game was a Kentucky win over Auburn in Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum, probably played there because “The Barn” on the Tigers’ campus couldn’t seat enough people when Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats came to town.

I “covered” my first college game as an Auburn undergraduate, a game when a fight broke out between the Tigers and the Florida Gators. My first “road” game was in Gainesville when an Auburn player got knocked cold. That was 54 years ago.

Anyway, been doing this a long time.

Along the way, I was assigned to write movie reviews for about a month when working for The Birmingham News in the late 1960s. That was a lot of fun, too.

Coming back from the Southeastern Conference tournament in Tampa this past weekend, those things crossed my mind – SEC basketball, movie reviews … and the fates of head basketball coaches.

‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ is my all-time favorite Western movie, largely due to the Rowdy Yates character on the old Rawhide television series.

The good, the bad and the ugly … Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef and Eli Wallach.

Buzz Williams, Will Wade and Cuonzo Martin.

Texas A&M, LSU and Missouri.

The Good – Buzz Williams came to College Station with a 12-year head coaching resume’ at New Orleans, Marquette and Virginia Tech. He was asked to turn around what had been a disappointing, injury-filled 14-18 season under Billy Kennedy. Things didn’t start too well. After two seasons, the combined record was 24-24, finishing dead last in the SEC last season with only two conference wins. Not much was expected this year either.

But the season started shockingly well. The Aggies won 16 of its first 18 games and were nationally ranked. Then, it all fell apart. A&M lost the next seven games and eight of the next nine, dropping to not even being among those “on the bubble” list for the NCAA Tournament. Williams’ team did close the regular season with four consecutive wins, including a 16-point crushing of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Nobody could have expected what happened next.

In the SEC Tournament’s first round game, the Aggies had a double-digit halftime lead over Florida, which was playing in front enough fans to be like a home game. A&M squandered the big lead and almost lost the game.

In the next game, the Aggies had a 16-point lead over top-ranked Auburn, which was playing in front of a “home” crowd even larger than Florida’s. The Aggies lead swelled to 20 points after intermission before again blowing the big margin, leading by only three points with a minute left before pulling it out.

In the semi-final game against fourth-seeded Arkansas, the Aggies again had a double-digit halftime lead, but this time they weren’t outplayed after intermission. The final margin was 18 points, but it had grown to over 20.

A&M did lose the championship game to nationally-ranked Tennessee, but from my perspective had played itself into the NCAA field of 68. Even though the selection committee didn’t agree, Buzz Williams, whose chair was getting warm after the midseason collapse, is back in favor with the fans in College Station.

This one’s good.

The Bad – The Bad was really bad, REALLY bad. LSU did fire head coach Will Wade. The word FINALLY should be added to that statement.

In five years, his Tiger teams won almost 68 percent of their games in the tough SEC, an on-court record good enough to keep your job.

Not so off-court – embarrassingly no so. There was controversy almost from the beginning. Wade was suspended prior to the 2019 postseason after it was widely reported that he was caught through a federal wiretap talking about a “strong-ass offer” to a recruit.

According to ESPN, a second NCAA Notice of Allegations released recently contained eight Level I violations against LSU. Seven of those are associated with the men’s basketball program and the other with the Tigers’ football team. Wade was accused of five Level I violations and one Level II. LSU also fired assistant coach Bill Armstrong after he was accused of a Level I and Level II violation.

In August 2020, ESPN had reported that the NCAA had information that Wade “arranged for, offered and/or provided impermissible payments, including cash payments, to at least 11 men’s basketball prospective student-athletes, their family members, individuals associated with the prospects and/or non-scholastic coaches in exchange for the prospects’ enrollment at LSU.”

LSU was also charged with “lack of institutional control.”

“After receiving the Notice earlier this week, we took several days to fully evaluate it and engage in deliberate and thoughtful discussions about our next steps,” said a statement from LSU president William Tate and athletics director Scott Woodward. “We can no longer subject our University, Department of Athletics, and — most importantly — our student-athletes, to this taxing and already-lengthy process without taking action.”

FINALLY! What took so long!

This one’s bad.

The Ugly – Cuonzo Martin was fired after his Missouri Tigers lost in the SEC Tournament’s second round to LSU, which was being coached by interim Kevin Nickelberry, not Will Wade. In the first night’s game, Mizzou defeated Ole Miss, 72-60.

Martin’s five-year tenure had not been as successful as hoped when he came to Columbia after coaching three years each at Missouri State, Tennessee and California. His teams won about 61 percent of their games at each place. His overall Mizzou record was 78-77, going 35-35 in the SEC. Not embarrassingly bad, but nowhere near the top. Two of his teams made it to the NCAA Tournament, but each lost its first round game.

“Coach Martin represented the university with an extremely high level of class and dignity,” said new Missouri athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, who was only hired by the school in August. “We are grateful for his contributions to our program, on and off the floor. He is not only a coach, but is a teacher, and he has impacted the lives of every student-athlete who came through the program over the last five years.”

Not much criticism in that statement. For sure, the won-loss record wasn’t what the fan base wanted. Apparently, Martin wasn’t the head coach that many of them wanted either. But his dismissal was widely criticized by others in the profession.

“I know schools and businesses have to make decisions that are sometimes hard to make and are sometimes unpopular, or sometimes they do it because it is popular,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self. “I feel bad for Cuonzo. I think he’s a really good coach. I think he’s a better guy, and I’m sure he’ll land on his feet.”

“Cuonzo is a stand-up guy, one of the best in our business. … Whether it’s on the court or away from the court; he is about social justice, making sure that he has a big voice, not only as a college basketball coach, but just as a Black man in America,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin’s comments were even stronger.

“Last time I checked they went to the NCAA tournament last year, if I’m not mistaken,” he said. “I don’t know what this business is coming to when men like him get questioned on what they can and can’t do, and get judged this year in this league coming off the year he had last year. We got major issues in this business if somebody that had that team Top 20 in the country pretty much all season last year and went to the NCAA tournament (gets fired).

“When is the last time you read about Cuonzo Martin’s teams in any kind of negative connote? When is the last time you read a player for Cuonzo Martin in any kind of negative connote? You’re not. He just came off an NCAA tournament, and people start talking like that? That’s sad. This business isn’t right if that’s the way we go.”

Not all firings are equal.

This one’s ugly.

In my opinion, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is the premiere sporting event in the country every year. People passionate about college basketball feel that way.

Don’t be surprised if some head coaches lead their teams on shocking runs, some are knocked out at the start, and some aren’t around this time next year.

The final review for this season is still to be written.