SEC Basketball Can Be Made Better

It's not often that I would find myself in the Rick Stansbury camp, but I think the Mississippi State coach is correct in wishing the Southeastern Conference had not done away with divisional play in men's basketball. At least unless the SEC is willing to make a change for the better.

At its spring meeting, the SEC decided to have its SEC Men's Basketball Tournament seeded 1-12 regardless of divisional record. One reason is because Alabama, an easy winner of the SEC Western Division last year with a 12-4 league record, did not make it into the NCAA Tournament.

The Crimson Tide has been the poster child for NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Selection Committee perniciousness in the past. It may be misguided, though, to think that SEC divisions played a role in the snub of Bama for the NCAA Tournament last year.

Gene Smith, who runs the athletics department at Ohio State, was chairman of the selection committee. When he was asked how Georgia got into the tournament while Alabama – which had beaten Georgia twice within about a week of the end of the season – did not, Smith demonstrated that like many NCAA committee heads, he is probably not the sharpest tack in the box.

Alabama Coach Anthony Grant can look in the mirror for the major reason Bama did not get into the NCAA Tournament. Not that Grant didn't do a superb job. He did. But the Tide played a weak non-conference schedule, had terrible losses, and late in the season when Alabama had opportunities to demonstrate its worthiness to be in the NCAA Tournament, Bama had some flops.

Last year's Alabama team was not going to win the NCAA Tournament, so perhaps it was best to play in the NIT, where the Tide made it to the finals in New York's Madison Square Garden, losing to Wichita State.

Alabama also was not going to win the overall SEC championship last year, but it was exciting for the team and for Bama fans that the Crimson Tide was able to win the Western Division championship. So why eliminate that competition?

Grant is doing something about the real problem in Alabama not making the NCAA Tournament. He is recruiting good players and coaching them well. And he is making the non-conference schedule tougher. Next year's opponents include Georgetown, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Georgia Tech, and Grant's alma mater, Dayton. The Tide also plays in a tournament in Puerto Rico with Purdue, Maryland, Temple, Colorado, and Wichita State.

In an SEC conference call with basketball coaches this week, Grant said, "I think we have to continue to challenge ourselves. As we build our program, we feel like we can compete with the best. If you look at the landscape of college basketball in terms of the post-season, (we) have to put ourselves in a position where we are in a favorable light should we have an opportunity to qualify for post-season play."

The SEC has been playing a schedule where each team plays the five teams in its division home and away. It plays each of the six teams in the other division once, three at home, three on the road, with those home and road sites switching each year. That has the potential to be marginally unfair in divisional play owing to the vagaries of home and away advantage.

One thought is that the SEC go to 18 conference games. That could be really unfair. Suppose one team draws its extra two games against Kentucky and Florida, another gets Auburn and Ole Miss.

The best possible thing for most SEC teams and for SEC fans would be a true double round robin – every team playing every other team home and away. That would account for 22 quality games for every team. It would also take out any unfairness of strengths of opponents or home-road. The problem is that a team like Kentucky, which can make a lot of money with extra home games, wouldn't want to have to play three more SEC road games.

That's the way the conference champion was determined prior to the SEC Tournament, but there were only 10 teams in the league so it was 18 games, not 22.

Basketball is a tournament game, so no one wants to do away with the SEC Tournament. For one thing it makes the league's teams a lot of money. With a double round robin regular season, it would be easy to seed the tournament participants and most teams would have an increased strength of schedule.

Anything short of a double round robin, there is no reason to change the current format, including divisional play.

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