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New SEC Basketball Schedule: How a Tiered Rotation Might Work

If the new league schedule is going to take away a guaranteed home-and-home in the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry, at least give us the chance to earn our way to an annual home-and-home with a tiered rotation.
If the new league schedule is going to take away a guaranteed home-and-home in the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry, at least give us the chance to earn our way to an annual home-and-home with a tiered rotation.

It's not 100% official, but it certainly appears that the much-feared one annual rival plan in the SEC's new 18 game basketball schedule is going to come to pass. While many in the national media look favorably on this setup, frustration brews within the halls in Lexington and Knoxville, as the Cats and Vols are not matched up with one another under this plan. Kentucky is guaranteed a home-and-home with Florida, while the Vols are paired with Vanderbilt. Let's point out this out again here, just so we're clear: it's not that Tennessee and Vanderbilt aren't rivals. We are. It's that Kentucky is our greatest rival, and before you make the point about that being true for many teams in this league, no one else in this league has beaten UK as much as we have. Our esteemed colleagues at A Sea of Blue agree:

Just having to think about this pisses me off. Tennessee is the closest thing Kentucky has to a rival in the SEC. The recent kind-of rivalry with Florida is no substitute.

The proposed 18 game SEC schedule would feature one home-and-home annual rivalry, plus four rotating home-and-home opponents, and then eight single games against the rest of the conference. If the SEC goes to a strict rotation, that means UT and UK would play once in Knoxville, once in Lexington, and once home-and-home in a three year period.

However, a bright spot here is an idea of a dynamic tiered rotation. John Calipari spoke in favor of this idea, which means (A) it's going to have a little more weight at the negotiating table and (B) I can't believe I'm agreeing with him. Calipari mentioned the structure used by the Big East - I've never paid attention to how they structure their games with so many teams, but Andy Katz reported last week on their method: the league actually polls its coaches this time of year in what is essentially a preseason power poll, then uses those responses in determining which teams will face each other in home-and-homes in the coming season.

This sounds a little crazy, but it's actually quite smart: you want the top tier of your league to have incredibly strong RPI ratings? Have them play each other twice and only play the bottom of the league once. Last year the Big East had four teams with Top 15 RPI ratings and seven in the vaunted Top 50. That means no one can question anyone's strength of schedule, and all the good teams in your league tend to be locks for March...unlike what's happened in the SEC the last two years.

This really is a great idea: it's great for the teams at the top for all of the above reasons, and it's great for the teams at the bottom who can rebuild and get wins by playing lesser competition. And because the rotation would change every year, you're always just one year away from playing the best teams in the league.

So how might something like this work?

Here are the proposed annual home-and-home rivalry games:

  • Alabama-Auburn
  • Arkansas-Missouri
  • Florida-Kentucky
  • Georgia-South Carolina
  • LSU-Texas A&M
  • Ole Miss-Mississippi State
  • Tennessee-Vanderbilt
Using the standings from last season (and adding in Missouri in second place and Texas A&M in 13th place), here's how a tiered rotation might look with four home-and-homes against teams near you in the standings:
  • Kentucky: Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
  • Missouri: Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
  • Tennessee: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri
  • Vanderbilt: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri
  • Florida: Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
  • Alabama: Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
  • Mississippi State: Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU
  • Ole Miss: Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU
  • LSU: Georgia, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina
  • Arkansas: Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M
  • Auburn: Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M
  • Georgia: LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M
  • Texas A&M: Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina
  • South Carolina: Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M
This would take some doing every year to get tier matchups evenly distributed around annual rivalries, but it can work. You might be waiting for some to cry unfair, but consider that the SEC East has thoroughly dominated the SEC West in basketball for years...and that never caused any change bigger than re-seeding the SEC Tournament, which didn't even happen until last season.

Remember, it's not that South Carolina won't play Kentucky at all: every team will still see every other team at least once every year. But for your four non-annual-rivalry home-and-home games, this is by far the best way to go, to me.

Would Kentucky rather play the next four best teams in the league twice, or play some random rotation that's going to be good some years and terrible in others? Would a coach on the hot seat in the bottom tier of the league rather play teams he can beat, or catch a bad break and face a tough rotation that year?

The only thing I don't like about this model is that it continues to validate RPI as a good tool for ranking teams...but because RPI is currently king on Selection Sunday, why not? It's not perfect, but it works best with the current system.

If you give Tennessee the chance to earn its way to a home-and-home with Kentucky, I can live with that. This is very much a work in progress and I wasn't even aware the Big East operated that way until earlier today, but I think this is a really good idea that the league should pursue. Thoughts?