Stansbury Making Peace With SEC Changes

Even a coach with plenty of successful experience adapting to changing circumstances prefers at least a few constants. So Rick Stansbury still hasn't entirely accepted how the Southeastern Conference is changing the way basketball is played. Specifically, the pending end of Divisional competition.

It was a topic Mississippi State's 13-year head coach was more than willing to rehash Monday for benefit of SEC media. "I ask you, give me reasons how it's better?" Stansbury said during his appearance on the conference's summer basketball teleconference. Not, as subsequent comments showed, that the Bulldog boss was willing to be convinced changing the system used since 1992 was a good move.

In fact, Stansbury challenged, "We talk about seeding but outside that how does it help? Why did the Big Ten just go to Divisions, what's their reasoning?"

If Stansbury's portion of the June press-fest turned into, primarily, a noble defense of the old system, well, that was inevitable. Because it was he alone who held out against the conference consensus, the only SEC coach to vote against changing both schedules and league tournament formats.

At their spring meeting, the SEC—coaches, athletic directors, and finally presidents—approved doing away with the two-decade basketball format where the top two teams from both the East and West Divisions receive automatic byes at the conference tournament. Starting this season, instead the best four SEC records regardless of Division will receive those first-day passes. This change has been promoted in recent seasons by SEC East members, most prominently Florida, as addressing what some saw as an inequitable system.

The problem, as they saw it, was how the second and third—or even fourth—best team from (again, in their eyes) a superior Division would be seeded behind the top teams from the perceived lesser side. Whatever it meant for SEC Tournament seeding, or not, the equal premise was how it impacted NCAA Tournament selections. Since for the last half-decade the SEC as a whole has struggled to earn NCAA bids (2009 saw just three teams taken, with only two at-larges), the argument had gained some force in league councils.

Stansbury still won't buy that argument. "I know everybody was hung up on the last couple of years the East being dominant," he said today. "But if you go through time there's a cycle everything takes." Unfortunately for him, the SEC cycle is turning in another direction.

Because league teams have already planned on the original format in booking non-conference dates, there will be no change to either the 16-game SEC schedule; or to the plan of playing each Division foe home-and-home with the rotating-site cycle of six inter-Division games. For this year, that is. The SEC has charged administrators with settling on a new schedule, due for December reporting, which either stays with 16 total league games or grows to 18. That will go in force for 2012-13.

For his part Stansbury isn't publicly taking a side in this; he's still frustrated at the perceived need to change anything. So, he said, if the goal is a "Making a truer champion, everybody play each other twice." Which would be a 22-game schedule, something the SEC has officially dismissed. "I'm just saying, if any reasons were for making it a true champion, you can't have that unless everybody plays each other twice. Am I in favor of playing 22, I'm not so sure of that. But if that's the main reason, that's the wrong reason."

It does need noting that the Bulldog coach is not exactly unbiased on the topic. Not after scoring or sharing six first-place Western finishes over his 13 seasons in charge at MSU. In fact, Stansbury has done more to promote the idea of Division Champions than any of his peers, and obviously had more opportunities to do so. At the same time, even Stansbury must admit that such ‘championships' carry little weight outside this league…most obviously with the NCAA Tournament committee.

Just this past season, outright West champ Alabama did not receive a NCAA bid. Nor did 2009 co-champs State and Ole Miss, who in 2007 also shared the West title but had to settle for NIT play. 2008 East co-champ South Carolina was also rejected. So Division success, once seen as a sure route to the ‘big dance', is no longer even a consideration. In the larger picture, the SEC has struggled for bids of any sort the last three seasons which likely contributed to the felt-need to do something, anything.

Even allowing that Division championships are small NCAA change these days, Stansbury still defends the idea on other grounds. "I just think it takes away from your fans in February, when there are more teams involved in competing for championships," he said, also raising the reality that now there are no sixth-place Division finishers. "Now teams can finish 12th," Stansbury said.

"But my biggest argument is it's great for the fans and for your student-athletes, give them a chance to compete for another championship."

Mississippi State did not win any titles in 2011, or play in either postseason tournament. Those Bulldogs struggled to a 17-14 record and 9-7 SEC mark, in what was by far the most tumultuous winter of Stansbury's tenure. He knew it was going to be challenging enough playing half the schedule without both point guard Dee Bost and sophomore forward/center Renardo Sidney. Even fitting them in took time, and was made tougher by a series of internal team controversies and p.r. disasters.

But that, too, has cycled-through and this has been a much, much smoother off-season in Bulldog Country. "Well, at this point we know who we've got going into the season, so it's much different than last year," Stansbury said. "Knock on wood, right now we know who we have in place."

Which also means knowing who he has on campus here at the end of the June semester. Only two members of the 2012 roster are absent, both with legitimate reasons. Incoming freshman guard Deville Smith did not enroll for June but "We expect him in the second term," said Stansbury. Ditto Sidney who has been busy elsewhere.

"He's in Houston (Texas), he's been working out with John Lucas and he's done well from what we've been told. He's had a good summer, and he'll be enrolled in the second term." Sidney chose to spend the first summer month in competitive care, rather than just hang around his Jackson home, and while State's staff have not been able to watch him per Stansbury they "Understand it's gone OK."

Of course coaches cannot observe anyone in summer action, even those on campus. That hasn't kept the staff from getting updates through channels on varsity Dogs, the two true frosh already enrolled, and one highly-anticipated transfer who can now play for-real after sitting a season. Sidney grabs the headlines but forward Arnett Moultrie will be just as key in pushing the Bulldogs back out front of the SEC.

"You never know until you turn the lights on and see how he plays," Stansbury cautioned. "But we liked the way he practiced last year with us. He's a very versatile player, he'll play inside and outside, he's a very skilled player. He's a good piece and a good fit for us."

Speaking of fits, "I think we've got a mixture of veterans and youth," summarized MSU's coach for media benefit. "So I think we have a chance."

Stansbury has indicated that he will loosen the restrictions on access to State players this summer, offering opportunities for off-season comments and features.

Shifting scheduling is a done-deed; now Stansbury has another potential change to fret as there is a proposal to trim the July recruiting period. That, now, hits the Bulldog coach where it counts. "It just seems more and more and more (they) keep taking opportunities away from us coaches that want to work in recruiting," he fumed today.

"I understand you have to limit some things, but you've taken basically all of April away from us, that's a time most of us like going out if just to see some AAU (teams) in spring. But they took that away from us. We've got to be able to evaluate players some way. I'm not a coach who likes being away in-season a long time." Naturally he has a compromise proposal for the powers-that-be to consider, and even admits there can be "overkill" in going out and watching kids and camps and the like. "But give us a few days back in April. We're held more accountable, but given less time to recruit and make right decisions."

Just like schedule and championship format changes, though, this is a decision college coaches don't get to make. So like it or not, Stansbury will find his own ways to work within revised rules.

"I've been at it long enough to know what it is, is what it is. You have to adjust to it."

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