It’s no secret that the SEC can play basketball with the country’s elite programs of today.
Ask any expert, and they will tell you that modern SEC basketball recruits and plays with the top echelon of college basketball. Kentucky’s shine is back, Florida’s dominance is one to reckoned with and Tennessee’s recent red-hot success has the SEC near the top of perennial powerhouse conferences in hoops today.
The Vols come into the 2010-11 college basketball season with momentum via an Elite Eight appearance in last year’s NCAA tournament and an abundance of young talent. Off-the-court issues and recruiting violations occurred this offseason, but Bruce Pearl saved his job by correcting these mistakes amidst allegations. In effect, these offseason dealings will have no bearing on the momentum the Vols possess to combat this year’s tough, vigorous SEC East schedule.
The great debate within the SEC this offseason was whether or not to switch from the traditional divided conference with divisions to one large division. The SEC is the last of the power six conferences to separate their conference in divisions. In spring meetings when coaches and ADs sat down, there was not much of a front to change this format.
The question is not whether the current system works today — it does. What coaches and ADs have realized and reviewed is that SEC teams would systematically receive higher RPI (Rating Percentage Index), or power ratings, if they played more cross-division games during the season.
For example, in order for Florida to up its RPI, the answer lies in playing more SEC East teams, because the East is a stronger division than the West. This would mean a rise in conference games from 16 to 22, which is a much larger margin of risk when considering how tough conference play can be, rather than a few more tune-up games across the country.
Last season, Florida head coach Billy Donovan said that playing in the stronger SEC East division actually helped Florida’s chances of an at-large bid, because it improved their RPI rating. For teams to enter the postseason independently, for those that don’t know, an at-large bid is based greatly on a team’s body of work or its strength of schedule. If opponents have higher power ratings, this helps its chances of getting an at-large bid that much more.
Certainly, every team wants greater competition and to be as ready as possible upon entering postseason play, if it makes it in. But herein lies the trick to at which length you want to sacrifice wins with greater competition. It’s a thin line and very debatable between coaches of the different divisions.
“I’m not saying I’m in favor of it; that’s an awful lot of league games, and 22 would be difficult to do,” Florida’s Donovan said. “But the real easy way to raise the level of our RPI is to play more league games.”
Donovan continued by saying he would listen to a proposal if it called for a round-robin format with one division and 22 league games.
Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss’ head basketball coach, seconded Donovan’s argument with a situation of his own last season, in which the Rebels defeated four SEC West teams — Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Arkansas — and still did not see a boost in their RPI.
His side of the story is that facing more East teams last year would have strengthened their overall strength of schedule and caused the RPI’s to show the Rebels a little more respect at tournament bid time in March.
On the flip side, some coaches do not believe that this uniting of teams into one division is necessary.
Their reasoning? Both division’s imbalances year to year are recurrent.
In the last seven years, the SEC has seen the West win the regular season conference championship three times, while the East has captured four. Just two years ago, Trent Johnson’s LSU Tigers won the conference from the West. While the East seems to be the stronger division before we enter the new season, he knows that anything can happen in the future.
“In my short term, the West was stronger when I first got here, and now it’s the East,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it matters.”
The Vols, sitting in the East and facing tough divisional competition like Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt will no doubt receive plenty of nods from the RPI come tournament time when strength of schedules are weighed among worthy teams throughout the nation. Note that no team in the SEC West enters the season ranked, while the East houses three in No. 10 Kentucky, No. 11 Florida and No. 20 Tennessee.
—Colin Skinner is a junior majoring in journalism and can be reached at