Does the New SEC Non-Divisional Format Help Its NCAA Profile?Posted by rtmsf on June 2nd, 2011
Yesterday the twelve SEC head basketball coaches voted to remove the east/west divisional format from their league. Pending what amounts to a rubber-stamping approval process from the league presidents, the conference could move to a standard twelve-team format as utilized by the other major basketball leagues as soon as next season. The impetus for this change has been the serious imbalance between the two divisions for a while now. In 2010-11, five SEC East teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament (versus none from the SEC West), and in 2009-10, four SEC East teams received golden tickets while its western counterparts were left at home. To put an exclamation point on it, in the last five seasons, a whopping 18 SEC East teams have been invited to go dancing (out of 30 possible bids) against only five from the much-weaker West division.
The SEC coaches know that NCAA bids are where they earn their paychecks and job security, so they’re seeking better ways to position themselves to get more teams into March Madness. What was once a consistent six-bid league has fallen to an average of four the last three seasons, and as already discussed, the vast majority of those are coming from one division. The idea to have a single conference race where schools are ranked and seeded for the conference tournament #1 to #12 is highly dubious given unbalanced scheduling (the intra-divisional teams will stay play each other twice in 2011-12) — does Alabama’s 12-4 mark (8-2 against the SEC West) from last season correlate to Kentucky’s 10-6 record (7-3 against the tougher SEC East)? From an NCAA profile perspective, is it better for a school to tout its status as #1 in the SEC West or #5 overall, as Mississippi State (9-7) dealt with two seasons ago? Fourth versus fifth place may not matter much in a deep league like the Big East, but in the SEC, it could mean the difference between caviar dreams in the NCAA Tournament or franks n’ beans in the NIT.
Along the lines of those questions, we thought it might be interesting to examine the last two SEC Tournaments through the old and new formats to determine if the coaches’ stated goal to create more NCAA bid opportunities for the league makes better sense without divisions. The brackets on the left hand side represent the old divisional format (#1 to #6 in both divisions), while the brackets on the right represent the new format (#1 to #12 regardless of division). NCAA bubble teams in both years are signified in red.
In 2011, the SEC had five bubble teams coming into the SEC Tournament. The two schools that eventually received bids — Tennessee and Georgia — appear to be in only a marginally better place under the new format than they were under the old one. In both formats, they play inferior teams that they should beat — the only way either actually improves its NCAA profile is if it wins two games or more. As for the others, the only school we see with a markedly different situation is Mississippi State, as Alabama and Ole Miss also appear to be in roughly equivalent spots regardless of format. The Bulldogs received a bye as a result of finishing second in the SEC West behind Alabama, but the comparison bracket begs the question: Is it better for MSU to have to beat a bad Auburn team before playing Kentucky in the quarterfinals; or is it better for MSU to await the winner of Vandy-LSU (most likely Vandy) in the quarterfinals? It seems to our untrained eye that playing the high-RPI Commodores (win or lose) is a better option than playing low-RPI Auburn even if the Bulldogs ended up winning the game.
What about the previous year? In 2010, the SEC only had three bubble teams, with Florida the only school of the three to ultimately receive a bid. Mississippi State is again the problem child, with its rival Ole Miss joining it as symptomatic. Was it better from an NCAA profile perspective for the Bulldogs and Rebels to have gotten a bye to the quarterfinals under the old format in order to play RPI-rich teams like Florida and Tennessee; or, was the possibility of an easy win in the first round (even over a low-RPI team) more valuable? Through the same prism as above, it appears to us that the two West division schools would not have been helped by the new format even if they won their opening-round games (over bottom-feeding Georgia and LSU).
Our fear is that this indicates SEC coaches are still caught up in the modern fiction that more wins — any kind of wins — are better than no wins at all. If the stated objective is to improve the profile of NCAA bubble teams, and hence the SEC (see comments from: Mark Fox; John Calipari; Billy Donovan), then what the league needs to do is to give its bubble teams the best opportunity for quality wins it can muster. SEC bubble teams are typically going to be in the range of conference records between 8-8 and 10-6. If that’s the case, they will also typically be placed into the first round under the new format matched opposite bad teams with records in the two-to-six win range (and ugly RPIs to match). It’s become obvious that the NCAA Selection Committee doesn’t really care about those kinds of wins, especially at the end of the season — it wants to see quality wins. Games against bad teams in March are not only unhelpful, with a loss, they can be downright dispositive. Does it help the SEC as a league to have its already-inconsistent bubble teams playing bad teams to earn an opportunity to get a quality win in the next round? Or was it better off rewarding more bubble teams under the old format to ensure that golden quality-win opportunity in the quarterfinals? We’re not sure the SEC coaches made the proper decision here. Then again, nobody asked us either.