As noted here recently, change is in the air regarding SEC basketball scheduling, as the league is considering doing away with divisional play and adopting an 18-game conference slate. The primary purpose of doing away with the divisions in basketball is to avoid the incongruity caused by allowing a weak divisional champion to receive a higher seed than its SEC record warrants, and the idea appears to be picking up steam in Destin.
The Florida Gators’ Billy Donovan proposes to solve the seeding problem by using RPI to seed the conference tourney, but that "solution" goes too far by half. The critics of RPI are legion, Senator Blutarsky correctly notes that reliance upon RPI would reduce the importance of the SEC slate, and teams already have adequate incentive to schedule tough non-conference games because of the importance of RPI to one’s NCAA Tournament chances. (If you don’t believe me, just ask a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide.) Remember the controversy over the Big 12 using the BCS standings to decide which team would represent the South Division in the conference championship game in football? That’s what Coach Donovan’s idea would do to basketball. Thanks, but no thanks.
I propose a more moderate course: keep the divisions, seed the conference tournament by conference record, and expand the conference schedule to 18 games.
The divisional format has the virtue of maintaining established rivalries; fans of the Georgia Bulldogs like knowing there will be trips to Columbia, Gainesville, Knoxville, Lexington, and Nashville every year. Well, all right, we don’t like knowing there will be a trip to Nashville every year, but that’s the fault of the Vanderbilt Commodores’ archaic oddball gymnasium, which you can’t lay at the feet of the Music City.
Rather than relying upon RPI, the league can simply seed by conference record, which is the closest thing to an objective measure we have available to us. Doing away with the divisions is unnecessary; just don’t give free passes to division champions with weaker records. Seed the tournament from first through twelfth by going best to worst, without regard to division. If that means two teams who met twice in the regular season will square off a third time in a third city in the tournament, so be it; that often happens in the later rounds, anyway.
How do you go to an 18-game conference schedule without doing away with the divisions? This isn’t easy, but, then again, going to an 18-game conference schedule isn’t easy even with a scrapping of the divisional structure, so keeping the divisions doesn’t necessarily complicate matters further. In fact, if we borrow a bit from football, the divisional format makes it somewhat more straightforward. Just do this:
- Every team plays the other five teams in its division twice annually, once at home and once on the road. That accounts for ten games, five home and five away. In the Fox Hounds’ case, Georgia would play Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt twice a year, every year.
- Every team plays four of the six teams from the opposite division once annually, facing two of them on the road and two of them at home. That accounts for another four games, two home and two away, bringing the overall total to 14, seven home and seven away. For Georgia, those four teams would be Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana State, and Mississippi State. Every year, the Bulldogs would play each of those opponents once, hosting two of them in any given year, with trips to, e.g., Fayetteville and Tuscaloosa one year, followed by trips to Baton Rouge and Starkville the next.
- Every team plays the two remaining teams from the opposite division twice annually, once at home and once on the road. When the SEC initially expanded and split into divisions for the 1992 football season, each team played an eight-game conference schedule consisting of the five teams from its own division, two permanent opponents from the other division, and one rotating opponent from the other division. Though that 5-2-1 format later was changed to a 5-1-2 format to reduce the time it took to cycle through the rotating opponents from the opposite division, the previous format would work for basketball, with its larger schedule, so the permanent rivals used in football in the early ‘90s could be revived for basketball. This would account for four games, two home and two away, bringing the overall total to 18, nine home and nine away. For Georgia, these two opponents would be the Auburn Tigers and the Mississippi Rebels, ensuring that the Bulldogs annually would host the Plainsmen and the Black Bears while playing each year in the so-called Loveliest Village and in Oxford.
This plan would heighten on the hardwood historic rivalries that the rotating schedule has lessened on the gridiron. The application of the dual permanent interdivisional rivalry arrangement previously used in football in the basketball context would establish as annual home-and-home affairs affrays between Alabama and Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Tennessee, Auburn and Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss, Kentucky and LSU, and Mississippi State and South Carolina, as well as doubling the number of meetings between current annual football foes Alabama and Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina, Auburn and Georgia, Florida and LSU, Kentucky and Mississippi State, and Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, thereby strengthening historic rivalries conference expansion has cooled.
By increasing the intensity of the bad blood between lapsed rivals in basketball, the league would raise the level of significance attached to those teams’ meetings in football. Anyone who doubts that should note this: Georgia and Georgia Tech broke off athletic relations in 1919, but the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets were paired in some Southern Conference events during the formal cessation of on-field hostilities; the second meeting between the dormant in-state rivals in the 1923 league tournament set a basketball attendance record for the region, which surely was a contributing factor to the two schools’ joint statement in March 1924 that the rivalry would be renewed. The football rivalry was rejoined in 1925, in a game that set a new attendance record for Southern football. (Note: I must give credit for the foregoing data to the author of the article tracing the history of the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry for the 2011 Georgia Bulldogs Maple Street Press annual, which will be available on newsstands on July 12!)
There you have it, folks: 18 conference games, nine at home, nine on the road, divisions intact, permanent rivalries, seeding by conference record, increased interest in basketball, with corresponding heightened intensity in football as a salutary by-product. What could be better than that?