NEW YORK — The Southeastern Conference made a concerted effort three years ago to improve the quality of basketball in a league known for football — and it has paid off.
With Auburn off to the Final Four after beating Kentucky in overtime on Sunday, the SEC earned at least $32.1 million through the NCAA’s system for paying conferences based on how their teams perform in the men’s basketball tournament. It’s the highest share for the SEC at 19 units, the term the NCAA uses for the bids and wins that qualify for payment, all the way through the Elite Eight.
The SEC’s best showing was good for third place among conferences this year, behind the Big Ten (21 units for at least $35.5 million) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (20 units for at least $33.8 million). The Big Ten and ACC tied with 13 wins each, but the Big Ten placed one more team in the field of 68.
There is no more money to be earned in this NCAA Tournament through the payout system, which stops once the Final Four is reached. The total payout will be spread over six years with the first payment in 2020 and subsequent payments likely to rise slightly each year, boosting conference earnings.
All 32 Division I conferences are guaranteed at least one unit each, then more money is doled out based on at-large bids and wins during the first two weeks of the tournament. The NCAA sets a value each year for units — $282,100 in 2020 — and distributes annual payouts based on results from the previous six tournaments.
Michigan State’s victory against Duke on Sunday that sent the Spartans to the Final Four earned the Big Ten’s 21st unit to edge out the ACC, and also set a conference high. The Spartans will face Texas Tech from the Big 12 in the Final Four on Saturday in Minneapolis. The Big 12 came in fourth with 13 units for at least $22 million.
Virginia of the ACC beat Purdue from the Big Ten in the Elite Eight on Saturday night and will face Auburn in the first semifinal in Minneapolis.
The Pac-12 earned seven units (at least $11.8 million) on the strength of 12th-seeded Oregon reaching the Sweet 16. The American Athletic Conference also earned at least $11.8 million with four teams in the field and Houston reaching the Sweet 16.
For the SEC, putting seven teams in the tournament field and four in the Sweet 16 was part of a rebirth of basketball in a conference that has won nine football national titles in the last 13 seasons.
From 2013-16, the SEC earned a total of 38 units, fewest among the Power Five conferences by nine. After getting only three teams in the field and earning six units in the 2016 tournament, the SEC hired former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese as an adviser to help lift the conference’s basketball programs.
Last season the SEC bounced back with 16 units, one shy of its previous high of 17 in 2006.
“The league is as good as it’s ever been,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said this week. “Even teams at the bottom of the league were really good.”
The West Coast Conference and Big East each earned five units. Gonzaga accounted for four of the WCC’s units — worth at least $8.4 million. For most conferences, unit revenue is part of the equally shared distribution among its member schools. But Gonzaga has a deal with the WCC to keep a greater share of the units it earns.
The Ohio Valley Conference was the only other league to earn more than two units. Thanks to victories by Murray State and Belmont, the OVC came away with four units worth at least $6.7 million after never before earning more than two.