Having had sand kicked in its face for long enough, the Sun Belt Conference has taken a long, cold look at itself in the mirror, and decided that it’s time to hit the gym.
On Monday, the conference announced that it planned to implement rules designed to increase the conference’s RPI rating. Specifically, the Sun Belt will mandate that its member basketball schools must only schedule non-conference opponents that, as ESPN.com’s Andy Katz reported, have a “three-year combined power rating within the top 150,” and/or teams that ended the previous season with an RPI within the top 150. The scheduling of games against non-Division I teams will be forbidden, and programs must constantly endeavor to average an attendance that surpasses the national average of 5,038 fans per game (as Katz reports, the Sun Belt brass are planning to help with this). The theory is that this scheduling upgrade en masse will raise the Sun Belt’s conference RPI and, in doing so, might lead to more than the single auto-qualifier each year in the NCAA Tournament, or at least a higher NCAA seed for the conference tournament winner. This would seemingly lead to other positive effects that all conferences love, like rising attendance at games, an increased television profile, and — to put it frankly — more respect. The rules outlined above will take effect starting in the 2011-12 season.
The Sun Belt is certainly ripe for a drastic self-determined change, meaning one that’s not being executed just to keep the conference alive. The great Sun Belt schism happened in the off-season of 1991, when most of the conference’s members bolted for other leagues and the remaining schools had to merge with the American South Conference to keep the Sun Belt in existence. Since that time, the Sun Belt has had more than one representative — its conference tournament winner — in the Big Dance exactly three times: 2008 (#10 South Alabama, at large; #12 Western Kentucky, auto), 1994 (#11 Western Kentucky, at large; #11 Louisiana-Lafayette, auto), and 1993 (#7 Western Kentucky, auto; #8 New Orleans, at large). Note that long drought, there — the span from 1995 to 2007 represents thirteen consecutive tournaments in which the Sun Belt was a single-bid league. And they logged only one win in that interval (#8 Western Kentucky def. #9 Michigan, 1995). In terms of actual conference RPI, the Sun Belt finished last year at its 10-year nadir of 22nd out of 32 conferences, averaging a year-end rank of 17.5 over that time period.