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Post The SEC already has a model for a 16-game, non-divisional basketball season

Thursday June 2, 2011

The SEC’s football coaches this week seem pretty content with the status quo. Hoops coaches on the other hand have put their support behind a big change: the SEC Tournament will be seeded based on conference record rather than the divisional standings. It’s the first step on the way to dismantling the divisional format for basketball.

Teams will still maintain the current division-based schedule for now. That will likely result in inflated records for those in the weaker division, but it’s a temporary situation. A committee of athletic directors and coaches will work on revamping future schedules.

There’s already a working model for SEC basketball without divisions: SEC women’s basketball. The women have never used divisions, and the conference tournament is seeded according to overall conference record. It’s a good thing, too: the top five seeds in this year’s SEC women’s tournament were all “East” schools. Had they used the men’s seeding format, #6 seed Auburn and #7 seed LSU – two teams that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament – would have received two of the top four seeds and first-round byes. The women’s tournament instead gave its top four seeds the bye and saw to it that they couldn’t meet until the semifinals.

The women also provide a model for scheduling without divisions. With 16 games against 11 opponents, you’ll play five twice and six once (just as we do now in divisional play). One of those teams you’ll play twice is your “permanent opponent”, and those fall along traditional rivalries. Georgia plays Florida, Auburn plays Alabama, and so on. Instead of the other four home-and-home opponents being predetermined divisional matchups, they’ll rotate among the other ten teams on a two-year basis. That means that in every other year, you’ll rotate to new home-and-home opponents. As an example, for the past two seasons the Georgia women played Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina twice. With the exception of Florida, Georgia will have different home-and-home opponents next season.

The downside of course is the unbalanced schedule. Someone is still going to be playing Kentucky and Florida twice while others get Auburn and South Carolina. But it won’t be their permanent condition, and teams won’t often have schedules as disparate as last season’s East versus West split.

The idea of expanding the conference schedule to 18 games is somewhat related. Two more home-and-home opponents would do a little to smooth out disparities between the toughest and weakest league schedules, and going to a true round-robin of 22 SEC games as some coaches suggested would eliminate them entirely. But I’m against the idea for the same reason that the conference probably wouldn’t like a football schedule with nine conference games. Two additional SEC basketball games don’t seem like a big deal, but by definition they would spread 12 more losses around the conference. The league already struggles to place more than a handful of teams in the NCAA Tournament, and saddling its inevitable bubble teams with another loss or two could make or break their chances.

It’s tough to gauge the impact of a longer conference season on nonconference schedules. Would a longer and ostensibly tougher SEC slate give teams the cover to reduce the quality of the rest of their schedule? After all, if there are going to be 12 more losses distributed among SEC teams, wouldn’t teams hedge against the possibility of more conference losses by picking up another sure win or two in December? The games we’d lose out on might not be the weakest on the schedule; instead they’d be some of the interesting opponents like Colorado or UAB – nonconference opponents that are rough substitutes in quality for other SEC teams.

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski had some thoughts on this very issue. According to the Charlotte Observer, “he would prefer that the ACC schedule remains at 16 games to allow teams to continue playing high-profile opponents from outside the conference without making the schedule too strong.” The ACC has also considered increasing its 16-game conference schedule after it had a tough time getting more than four teams into this year’s NCAA Tournament. But Krzyzewski argues that the solution lies with the rest of the conference stepping up its nonconference schedule. Adding more conference games would take away the opportunity and motivation for those schools to do their part in improving the stature of the league.

Part of our problem is that as a conference, we have not scheduled nonconference-wise hard enough to promote a good enough RPI which would benefit everyone,” Krzyzewski said. “If we could still keep 16 games and each team takes it upon itself to schedule stronger, I think we need that.

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