The mighty SEC has a basketball problem, but don't blame Kentucky, y'all

USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats came to Nashville, lost their only game and stayed through the weekend. And without Big Blue, the state of SEC basketball would be even sorrier.

NASHVILLE - Ole Miss won the SEC Tournament, making the SEC a three-bid power conference. It was the Rebels' first SEC title since 1981. They beat Florida, a program with two national titles in the last decade.

And if not for the sheen of pep bands and Jumbotron productions, a crowd of around 10,000 would've made the 19,000-plus seat Bridgestone Arena sound embarrassingly cavernous during Sunday's championship game.

The Gators entered as a surefire NCAA Tournament team and the SEC's regular season champs, but they drew fewer than 5,000 fans, about as well as their football brethren did during this year's Sugar Bowl, an equally arbitrary event for a fan base accustomed to national titles or nothing.

It's hard to blame Ole Miss fans, who debated firing their head coach - the program's winningest - just two weeks before. Ole Miss entered Nashville with a double-bye but having also lost to a pair of sub-200 RPI teams in the previous month. Until Friday, this was not a program considered to be on the rise.

You know who was there? John Harris, all smiles and shrugs as he smoked a cigarette during halftime of the championship game. The 59-year-old native of Madisonville, Kentucky and his brethren should at least be sent a tote bag from the offices in Birmingham.

"I've been to every tournament since... let's see. 2004. Every tournament, every game at those, since 2004."

Me: "Even Tampa last year?"

"Actually, last year was New Orleans. Was there. Tampa was two years ago, but I was there, too."

Me: "[Embarrassed and Googling]... oh, you're right."

"Yeah, I just love basketball. Kentucky fans, we just love basketball. Doesn't matter."

"I considered leaving town, but just thought against it. I like Nashville. I honeymooned here a long time ago."

Clearly. Along with Harris, roughly 1,000 of the fans that made up the sparse title game crowd were Kentucky supporters, almost all middle-aged or older, sitting with arms folded and faces serene. An Ole Miss loss to Florida could've theoretically helped the Wildcats' very slim bubble hopes, but never once did I see a Big Blue fan cheer one way or the other.

"I considered leaving town, but just thought against it. I like Nashville. I honeymooned here a long time ago."

***

No one implied that it would, but Nashville's basketball tournament bore no resemblance to Atlanta's football championship game. The SEC enjoys the only truly successful conference title game in all of college football, by all metrics - sales, ratings and relevancy. In the waning moments of Vandy's commanding win over UK, I got outside fast enough to witness the remaining market for ticket flatline.

Joey and Lee, an androgynously named but exceedingly polite couple, are current undergraduates at UK.

"Anyone need any fucking tickets? Right here, right here, here's a whole fucking book of tickets," Joey barked to the crowd.

I asked if they planned on leaving Nashville.

"Oh no. You won't see many UK people leave. They're going to go get drunk, but they aren't leaving."

"Oh no. You won't see many UK people leave. They're going to go get drunk, but they aren't leaving."

Two days later they were still just there, as they'd been since Tuesday night. The mantra is that Kentucky loves basketball, but Kentucky also really, really loves Nashville. That can't be overstated. Rich Brooks brought this program to the Music City Bowl multiple times and helped create 50,000-plus attendance numbers for an outdoor, pre-New Year's bowl in the often crappy Nashville winter. The Wildcats routinely send 10,000 football fans to road games at Vanderbilt no matter how irrelevant the contest. Before the games, they wander well past the boundaries of the tourist districts and dump money, from honky tonks to hipster gastro pubs. They're diverse by virtue of their sheer size, and they wash neutral-site basketball events with a flood of Big Blue money.

***

Even with their one-and-done run on Friday and the reality of a poorly attended event, Big Blue propped up the 2013 SEC Tournament. If not for them, SEC basketball would be an even further embarrassment.

The SEC announced a total tournament attendance of 168,452 over five days and 13 basketball games. It's a really sexy number that might as well have been made up out of thin air. Instead, the league took the pains of calculating it by taking the attendance of each of its six sessions and doubling the number, as each session featured two games.

With deliberately naive logic, the SEC assumed each session had the exact same number of fans at each game. For instance: 18,192 was announced for Session 5 on Friday afternoon and evening, which featured Kentucky's first and only game vs. Vanderbilt. Was that the same number of folks who stuck around for a 9 p.m. tipoff between Missouri and Ole Miss? Not even close. With that double number, finally they added Sunday's championship game (announced at 12,138, but as someone who was there I can tell you it was closer to 10,000).

There's absolutely no way of telling the exact number of unique individuals that attended the five-day event, but it sure as hell wasn't close to 168,000. It might not have even been 68,000. The average attendees per game was announced as 12,958. Contrast that with the NHL's Nashville Predators, Bridgestone Arena's primary tenant. Through 12 home games in a strike-shortened season, the supposedly foolhardy concept of hockey in the South is drawing 17,144 per game, and as of this writing the Predators are languishing in the standings.

A lot of basketball in the SEC is bad. Wednesday night's opening games featured four teams with a combined total of 18 conference wins. Three - South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn - had an RPI below 200 and sub-.500 overall records . Why even play those games? Sure, any team can make a run, but those odds would offend even the spirit of Dennis Felton's 2008 Georgia Bulldogs.

***

Kentucky is never leaving the SEC. Nor should it.

But maybe Kentucky is actually bad for the SEC's basketball fortunes. Now that they've returned to national relevance, the gap couldn't be wider between them and everyone else. Short of the tournament final, every game not involving the Wildcats carried a general sleepiness among the fans and media. The SEC began play with two locked teams and four legit bubble contenders in a 14-team field. If the goal is to create games of national interest spread out over 13 games in five days, those aren't terrible numbers, but the malaise felt inescapable.

Maybe it would be good for Kentucky, too. It's enjoyed decades of unrivaled dominance. The biggest different between UK basketball fans and Alabama football fans is the bitter loathing of the Tide among every other neighbor in America's premiere football conference. The Cats are kings in an empty kingdom the way Bobby Bowden's Florida State ran through the ACC of the early 1990s. Without the outlier, it's easier to accept a conference as definitively weak and dispassionate about a particular sport.

It will never happen, but without the Cats, the SEC could do away with the marketing that dictates this otherwise sleepy end to a season be pushed as a major event. The Big Ten still has a baseball tournament every season, but no one has to act like it's a bigger event than it really should be.

But since that of course will never happen, John Harris and most of the Commonwealth will be back in Atlanta next March, as one outlier fan base privately funds what's become less and less of a relevant sport to its neighbors.

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