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.