published Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Wiedmer: Catch-22 for SEC: too many

No single gesture may better illustrate how deeply Southeastern Conference basketball coaches want to do away with two divisions than Auburn coach Tony Barbee showing sympathy for archrival Alabama’s exclusion from last spring’s NCAA tournament.

During an SEC coaches’ teleconference Monday morning, Barbee said, “There’s no way if we were one division last year that [Alabama’s] out of the NCAA tournament after finishing second in the SEC.”

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Yet despite winning the league’s weaker West Division, the Crimson Tide went to the National Invitation Tournament while five SEC East teams — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — went into the 68-team NCAA bracket.

And Bama won its only regular-season league meetings against Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee to finish with a better record than all but the Gators.

Not that the Selection Committee didn’t have reasons to turn back the Tide, the most obvious being Alabama’s overall strength of schedule. The Tide ranked 80th, while Georgia’s No. 47 was the weakest of the fortunate five to reach March Madness.

All of which brings us to the SEC coaches’ successful lobby for a single division this coming season with a possible move to 18 or 22 league games the season after that.

Never mind that no league ever has scheduled more than 20 regular-season games or that no power conference has ever played more than an 18-game conference slate.

This is the SEC, the first of the super conferences to split into divisions. If bigger was better in 1992, the first year of expansion from 10 teams to the current dozen with the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina, why not become the first league to schedule a round-robin, 22-game conference marathon?

At least that’s LSU coach Trent Johnson’s position.

“It’s the only way to have a true champion,” said Johnson, who came to the Tigers from Stanford, which played a true 18-game round robin in the 10-team Pac-10.

“In a perfect situation, everyone would play twice, home and home.”

There are no perfect situations for all 12 teams, however. If you’re Kentucky, for instance, and you regularly play North Carolina, Louisville and Indiana — plus at least a couple of other national-TV matchups every season — what do you need with 22 conference games?

As Wildcats coach John Calipari noted during his turn on the teleconference, “Leagues that have gotten tons of the teams in the NCAA tournament have figured out that it’s about your nonconference strength of schedule and nonconference RPI.”

The problem with the SEC is that nobody outside of UK’s Big Blue Nation cares about basketball until January, when league play begins and bowl season ends.

Would playing more league games — which would likely force at least one or two conference contests to move to December — change that? Perhaps. Consider, for instance, that Ole Miss drew an average of just 5,100 for nonleague home games compared to 7,770 for SEC matchups. Auburn’s numbers were similar, the Tigers pulling in an average of 5,540 before SEC games began and 7,500 thereafter.

Even Tennessee — one of the top five programs nationally in attendance — averaged 2,400 more fans for SEC contests, drawing an average of 20,300 for conference foes as opposed to 17,900 for everybody else.

Then again, with five league schools ranked outside the top 115 in RPI — and most of their nonleague opponents lower than that — why would anyone want to watch this conference play Grambling State, USC-Upstate or Arkansas-Pine Bluff?

Still, 22 is too many, especially when the NCAA Selection Committee repeatedly encourages schools to play quality opponents outside their conference on the road.

Beyond that, if playing your conference brothers 22 times a winter is so good for SEC basketball programs, why not encourage their football counterparts to play 11 SEC games?

Wouldn’t that be the fairest way to crown a champion in that sport? No scheduling quirks there, other than you’d play six home games one year and five the next. But you couldn’t argue that Team A got lucky because Team G wasn’t on its schedule.

The difference, of course, is twofold. One, the two-division football format has delivered the SEC five straight national champions in football while the conference has reached the Final Four only once (Kentucky, this past season) since Florida won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and ’07.

Two, the SEC football title game inside the Georgia Dome is a moneymaker on par with any non-BCS bowl game. The SEC basketball tournament makes money, but not that kind of money.

But something else Barbee said should give pause to anyone who thinks 22 league games will deliver one or two more bids to March Madness.

“The only way we’re going to be a national program,” he said, “is by playing a national schedule.”

And it’s awfully hard to do that without leaving your own back yard.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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