By Randy Horick
I have a lawyer friend (it’s a painful to admit it) who fondly recounts a March Madness experience from his days at Vanderbilt Law School. Every Saturday and Sunday, a throng of aspiring heavy billers and rainmakers would gather in the school’s windowless basement lounge to watch college basketball on TV. For some in the crowd, the games provided an opportunity to engage in loud, gaseous pontifications about which conference, the ACC or the Big 10, should receive universal recognition as the nation’s premier league.
The chief spokesman for the ACC faction was a high-decibel Maryland graduate so obnoxious that he alienated his peers by touting his beloved Terrapins, the unrecognized genius of their coach, Lefty Driesell, and the advantages of growing up with Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. On the other side of the chamber, a knot of Midwesterners, with less vehemence but equal certainty, affirmed the supremacy of the banging, football-influenced style of the Big 10.
As it happened, Maryland was paired against Indiana that year in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Moments after the law lounge TV flashed the game’s whopping final score—Indiana 90, Maryland 55—Mr. ACC bounded in like an oblivious puppy. Settling into his seat, he asked, “Anybody heard the score of the Maryland game?”
The Big 10 contingent piped up as one. A righteous Illinoisan with round glasses stood over Mr. ACC and waved his stubby finger under the Terrapin’s nose.
“They got KILLED!” he shouted. “Destroyed! Humiliated! From now on, you don’t say bleep in here!” Veins were protruding from his neck. “We’re not gonna hear bleeping bleep about the ACC! You don’t say jack bleep about Maryland! The Big 10 killed them! They got killed!”
With no one rising to his defense, Mr. ACC looked like he wanted to cry. The debate was over. At least for that year.
In varying degrees of civility, however, this same debate continues, year after year, all over the country. Along with the proliferation of gambling opportunities, it is what makes college basketball so much fun for so many Americans.
Midwesterners, as usual, are asserting their claims of primacy for the Big 10, in spite of the failure of a single league member to be ranked higher than eighth in the latest poll. (And for good gosh sakes, that eighth-ranked team is Penn State, where basketball has long been little more than a way to pass the time between football season and spring training.)
Along Tobacco Road, where ultranationalists will assure you that, if they didn’t invent basketball, they at least perfected it, you’ll hear the usual trumpeting of the ACC’s virtues. Abetted, as usual, by the media establishment —ESPN, don’t forget, is headquartered in Connecticut—fans of the Big East are renewing their old claims of preeminence. The only two real exceptions to this rule are the Southwest Conference, where the caliber of basketball is so generally inferior that Texans are forced to feign disinterest, and the Pac 10, where (Arizona notwithstanding) regional chauvinism is regarded as way, like, uncool.
Nowhere, of course, is regional feeling stronger than in the Southeast —surely the only place in the world, except maybe Serbia or Germany, where defeating auslanders in short, baggy pants could be linked to a legacy of military defeat. As with football—and with the same unshakable conviction that leads them to insist that the War of Northern Aggression was about States’ Rights and not about that other S Word—native-born basketball fans from Louisiana to Florida will tell you that you’d best be mahty tuff if you speck to make it in the SEC. Mahty tuff.
The only problem is, at least when it comes to the men, this season, the Southeastern Conference looks more mitey than mighty. Though it may profane the memories of R.E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard to suggest it, most of the boys from the SEC will have to stay on the porch come tournament time. Overall, they’re not ready to run with the big dogs.
Before all the howling commences, let us state for the record that Kentucky could whoop any team in America, even them Yankees from UMass who gave the Wildcats their only loss so far. Unfortunately, the Wildcats are the only SEC team deserving of that claim. True, Kentucky’s frenzied style can often leave decent teams looking like Custer’s army. But the other, more damning evidence of the league’s mediocrity is that, except for the Wildcats, the only SEC teams with impressive out-of-conference victories are Vanderbilt (over UCLA) and Georgia (over Georgia Tech).
Only two teams from the 12 have losing records, but only UK was among this week’s Top 25. In fairness, the Wildcats’ second team also would have been ranked had the pollsters been allowed to vote for them. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if only four SEC teams (Kentucky, Mississippi State, Auburn, and either Georgia or South Carolina) are invited to the NCAAs. Gasp, only three may make the cut.
The league’s problem certainly isn’t the coaching. At no other time in its history has the SEC boasted so many respected and successful coaches. (Before you interject, remember that even the cosmic Rev. Dale Brown has taken LSU to the Final Four twice.)
It’s not that there’s a dearth of experience (an argument that only works for Arkansas, Tennessee and, to a lesser extent, Vanderbilt). There’s certainly no shortage of talented players.
In truth, there is no explanation for the SEC’s dip this year—except that it’s just one of those cyclical things. It happens to the best of conferences. Even the exalted ACC has only two Top 25 teams. The Big Eight has only one bad team—but it also only has one outstanding one (Kansas). Likewise, the Pac 10 and Big 10 have five or six good teams each but no truly great ones. That leaves us with the Big East, which for the past several years had been in a league-wide funk of its own.
In the Southeast, what we have chiefly to cheer about is women’s hoops. That may be little consolation to many Basketball Bubbers who look upon any women’s sport except mud wrestling as a concession to political correctness. But the fact remains that this year, once again, SEC women’s teams rule the country.
Tennessee and Georgia both could easily return to the Final Four, and, if the Commodores can steady themselves, Vandy has a shot too. Meanwhile, at least four other SEC teams have been ranked this year.
As untraditional an image as it may be, women have carried the South’s battle flag all year. (In some places, it may not be that long before they outdraw their male counterparts.) And although their game probably won’t inspire too many passionate arguments in law school lounges, any SEC fan interested in seeing the nation’s best teams should advocate putting the women in their rightful place—on TV more often, with their own SEC game of the week.
As untraditional an image as it may be, women have carried the South’s battle flag all year. (In some places, it may not be that long before they outdraw their male counterparts.) And although their game probably won’t inspire too many passionate arguments in law school lounges, any SEC fan interested in seeing the nation’s best teams should advocate putting the women in their rightful placeon TV more often, with their own SEC game of the week.