LITTLE ROCK — The carrot that convinced Southeastern Conference athletic directors to do away with division play in basketball is still out there, dangling.
So far, consolidation has not increased the number of SEC teams playing in the NCAA Tournament. The 12-team SEC had four teams in last year; the 14-team SEC got three this year and Ole Miss escaped being one of the four play-in teams by beating Florida in the finals of the SEC Tournament.
In 2011, when there were two six-team divisions, the SEC had five teams in the Tournament, albeit all from the East. That year, Mississippi State, 9-7 in the SEC, did not make the postseason in any capacity — same as Arkansas this year. Once Alabama and Kentucky were identified as No. 1 seeds and Tennessee as a No. 2 on the NIT selection show on Sunday, I figured Arkansas for no worse than a four.
Anyway, in June 2011, when the league’s athletic directors went along with SEC coaches and voted to scrap the two divisions, Kentucky coach John Calipari said coaches were hoping the approach would help get eight teams in the discussion for NCAA bids.
Calipari contended that teams in the Eastern Division netted points in the power ratings by playing each other twice while teams in the Western Division were at a disadvantage because they only played one game against the Kentuckys, Floridas, and Vanderbilts. The first year, there were 16 conference games. This year, there were 18, home and home against five teams and single games against eight others. Ironically, some of the teams with inferior schedules reaped the benefits in the W-L record, but suffered when the strength of schedule was considered by the NCAA selection committee.
Alabama and Ole Miss tied for second with Kentucky at 12-6, but 11-7 Missouri and Tennessee were ahead of them on the NCAA pecking order prior to the SEC Tournament. Part of that goes to bad losses, but it also goes to beating up on inferior SEC teams.
Tennessee was Alabama’s only home-and-home opponent above .500 in the SEC. Ole Miss had two such — Missouri and Tennessee.
Florida and Missouri, the first two league teams in the NCAA Tournament, each had two games against three opponents that topped .500 in the league, and also benefited from victories over some credible non-conference opponents.
There is no way to write a schedule that provides equal opportunity for all. Some teams are going to have two games against the Auburn of that year and others will have a home and home against a surprise contender. The only givens are that Kentucky and Florida will be contenders as long as Calipari and Billy Donovan are in charge.
Two years ago, SEC coaches even considered a double round-robin, a total of 22 games. With 14 teams, that would be 26 games and leave little room for non-conference games.
Tinkering with the schedule is not the answer. The only way the SEC can move into the top five or so power conferences and reap the rewards is to consistently beat teams from those leagues. This year, Florida played Arizona and Kansas State; Kentucky played Duke, Notre Dame, and Louisville; Missouri had Louisville and UCLA; Tennessee played Oklahoma State, Georgetown, and Memphis; Arkansas played Syracuse, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and Ole Miss played Middle Tennessee.
Against those NCAA Tournament teams, the SEC’s best were 0-for-14. Plus, Tennessee lost to Virginia and Kentucky lost to Baylor, a No. 1 and No. 2 seed in the NIT.
There is a clear correlation between strength of conference and number of teams in the NCAA. The Mountain West, Big East and Big Ten got more than half of their teams in the tournament while the 10-member Big 12, 12-member Pac-12, and 16-member Atlantic 10 have five each.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.