If the rest of the league won't schedule up, Mike Slive should protect the teams that will.
The bulk of the conversation this week hasn't been about Mercer (8:00 PM, ESPNU) but about the SEC's scheduling policies. Cuonzo Martin has continued to beat the drum of aggressive scheduling around the league, because as we've seen, when the entire conference doesn't schedule up, the entire conference pays. Not only did the SEC get only three on the dance floor (and probably just two before Ole Miss got hot in Nashville), but they only got three in the NIT. Arkansas was 19-13, LSU was 19-12, and both are done. No team in this league should win 19 games and not even play in the NIT.
The SEC is still considered one of the big six conferences, but this year it finished eighth in RPI, clearly behind the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. It's no coincidence that Boise State and La Salle were among the last four in (along with St. Mary's from the WCC and MTSU from the Sun Belt) while Tennessee was left out. SEC Basketball was down this year, no doubt but in the eyes of the selection committee, we were in the basement.
As long as the selection committee continues to value RPI, which can be manipulated (as the Mountain West did this year and Bruce Pearl did in years past), the SEC has to value RPI. You may think it's an overly simplistic and very flawed system of ranking basketball teams, and you're probably right. But as long as it's the system the committee uses, it needs to be the system we cater to.
Here's a sampling of the best of who the SEC scheduled in the non-conference this season, not counting the SEC-Big East Invitational:
- Florida: Wisconsin, Arizona, Kansas State, scheduled Georgetown but was rained out
- Missouri: Illinois, UCLA, Battle for Atlantis (Stanford, Louisville, VCU)
- Ole Miss: Middle Tennessee, Indiana State
- Kentucky: Maryland, Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville
- Tennessee: Wichita State, Xavier, Virginia, Memphis, Puerto Rico (Oklahoma State, UMass)
- Alabama: VCU, 2K Classic (Oregon State, Villanova)
- LSU: Boise State, Marquette
- Arkansas: Oklahoma, Michigan, Las Vegas Invitational (Arizona State, Wisconsin)
- Texas A&M: Louisiana Tech, Oklahoma, CBE Classic (Saint Louis)
- Vanderbilt: Oregon, Xavier, Middle Tennessee, Butler
- Georgia: Legends Classic (Southern Miss, Indiana, UCLA)
- South Carolina: Did not schedule an NCAA or NIT at-large team
- Mississippi State: Maui Invitational (North Carolina, Marquette)
- Auburn: Illinois, Florida State
So as you can see, of the six SEC teams still playing, four did a great job scheduling up. What Alabama did was not schedule any really terrible teams with the exception of Lamar (RPI 335); everyone else they played in the non-conference had an RPI better than 190. Outside that group, Arkansas did a good job scheduling and Vanderbilt probably played an appropriate schedule given their total rebuild.
Everyone else needs to put their big boy pants on.
It is no longer enough to play in a strong preseason tournament and then schedule no one else the way Georgia and Mississippi State did. It is no longer enough to simply play other teams from power conferences if those teams aren't that great (Auburn) or schedule one really great team and call it a day (LSU). And what Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and especially South Carolina did is totally indefensible. If they don't start scheduling like they belong, good teams in this league won't belong either come March.
Mike Slive can encourage athletic directors in a number of ways to schedule up. There's an SEC-Big 12 Challenge coming to replace the SEC-Big East Challenge, but that's a step backward for everyone that doesn't play Kansas compared to big games against the Big East. And SEC teams can continue to put themselves in strong preseason tournaments.
But one thing Slive and the powers that be can absolutely do is fix the SEC's in-conference rotation and make sure the best teams don't get overly burdened with terrible competition.
This year the league had each team play an annual rival home-and-home, then four additional random home-and-home foes. I'm sure balance was the idea, creating a schedule that's as close to even as possible. But here's reality: the selection committee does not care about conference standings. Last year the Vols finished second in the SEC and played in the NIT. This year the SEC's dance cards went to the league champion, the sixth place Missouri Tigers
, and the third place Ole Miss Rebels only because they got hot in Nashville. Kentucky's bluebloods finished second and they're playing in the NIT. Alabama and Tennessee at 4th and 5th are doing the same. League standings simply aren't nearly as important as RPI and from there, strength of schedule.
So forget trying to make it balanced for the SEC standings. Let's talk about how to make it fair to the teams playing for the dance floor.
To do that, the league can keep the annual rivalries, but then needs to assign the other four home-and-home games based on last year's standings. Again: league standings appear to be irrelevant to the selection committee, but they still serve as a decent enough indicator for who should be playing who. The Big East employed a similar system to protect their best teams from having to play their worst teams more often than not, while simultaneously giving their worst teams a chance to make a run.
If you're a fan of a bad team, you might say, "Yeah, but that hurts our RPI if we do get hot, because we only played Florida once but played South Carolina and Auburn twice!" You're right. Know how to fix that? Schedule like it matters in the non-conference. Because it does, to all of us. If all 14 schools scheduled up in the non-conference, who played who in league play would matter far, far less. Until they do, and I'd argue even if they do, scheduling league play based on merit instead of random drawings is much, much better for business.
Using this year's standings, here's how it might look for 2013-14, listing each team's annual rival first and then their other four home-and-home foes:
- Florida: Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri
- Kentucky: Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri
- Ole Miss: Mississippi State, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee
- Alabama: Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Tennessee
- Tennessee: Vanderbilt, Florida, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Alabama
- Missouri: Texas A&M, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU
- Arkansas: LSU, Missouri, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M
- LSU: Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M
- Georgia: South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State
- Vanderbilt: Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, Auburn, South Carolina
- Texas A&M: Missouri, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina
- Mississippi State: Ole Miss, South Carolina, Auburn, Texas A&M, Georgia
- South Carolina: Georgia, Mississippi State, Auburn, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
- Auburn: Alabama, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt
If the league keeps the random format, the Vols will play Vanderbilt again, then will play four of the eight teams they didn't face home-and-home this season (Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas A&M). Maybe we catch both Florida and Missouri, maybe we catch neither. But that's a lot of crap compared to what turned out to be a really strong SEC schedule for the Vols this season.
Remember, everyone is going to play everyone else once anyway. Everybody still gets to play Kentucky. But I don't think any of the best teams in this league are going to complain about spending more time with each other. And if you're not among last year's best, it forces you to schedule up and thus help the rest of the league's RPI to put yourself back on the dance floor.
As for the Vols, it looks like we're spending at least one year away from Memphis but we'll still have return matches with Wichita State and Xavier on the road and Virginia in Knoxville. There will be a Big 12 foe on the schedule somewhere, but the big prize for Tennessee is the Battle For Atlantis in November with Kansas, Michigan State, Villanova, Xavier, Wake Forest, USC, and UTEP. And Cuonzo may have some additional surprises up his sleeve. But either way, expect the Vols to continue to schedule aggressively and stay in the national conversation.
But whether it's this system or something else, hopefully Mike Slive will do what it takes to make sure SEC Basketball returns to its rightful place among the power conferences in college basketball.