For the 11th time in 20 years, the SEC will play its men’s basketball tournament in Atlanta this coming season. But after March 2014, the tournament won’t return to Atlanta often, if at all, in the foreseeable future.
The SEC announced this week that Nashville, Tenn., will become the tournament’s primary site and its host for all but two years from 2015-25. Only the 2018 and 2022 events remain open in that span, with St. Louis and Tampa, Fla., aiming to lure those away from Atlanta, too.
At SEC Basketball Media Days, a two-day event that concluded Thursday, the league’s coaches expressed support for the decision to base the league tournament at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Predators and site of four previous SEC men’s tournaments.
“I really think, for the fans, for the players and for the tournament, it’s a very big win,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I think the venue is the best, and I think the intimacy of 18 or 19 thousand seats is better than the (Georgia) Dome. I think the quality of the play is higher because of that.”
The only coach expressing reservations was Georgia’s Mark Fox.
“I’m a little selfish in the fact I’d like to see Atlanta have the tournament some,” Fox said. “Now, Nashville has done a great job hosting the tournament, and Atlanta does get the football championships, so we can’t be completely greedy.”
The tournament began to drift away from Atlanta in recent years because, the SEC said, its fans expressed a preference for basketball-sized arenas over an NFL-sized stadium. While the Georgia Dome hosted the tournament nine of 14 years from 1995 through 2008, it has had the event only twice in six seasons since (including the next one).
“I do think being in a basketball arena adds to the atmosphere,” Fox said. “A dome can be so massive that it loses some of the intimate feel to it. With the new (Falcons) stadium in Atlanta and how that setup would be for basketball, I think that’d be real intriguing to look at.”
After shuttling the tournament among Atlanta, Nashville, Tampa and New Orleans in the past five years, SEC athletic directors voted in May to seek a regular site for the event — similar to Atlanta for the league’s football championship game and Hoover, Ala., for its baseball tournament. Nashville appeared to be the only location seriously considered, a reflection of the league’s happiness with the 2001, 2006, 2010 and 2013 tournaments there.
“I’m excited about (Nashville) being a place we call home for our tournament,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said that, although Atlanta “has been great for the league,” the regular site will “bring an identity to the tournament.”
Stallings said teams shoot better in basketball-sized arenas than in domes because of the shooting backgrounds. Fox countered, “You’re going to play a Final Four in a dome, so let’s hope we all have to experience that.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari suggested the SEC was persuaded to settle the tournament in Nashville because last season’s event there was well-attended even after the Wildcats — the league’s biggest draw by far — were eliminated in their first game.
“It was a great environment,” Calipari said, “and I think (the league) said, ‘Hey, if this team and that team loses and we still get this kind of crowd, we need to be here.’ And that’s true.”