SEC confronting men's basketball scheduling issues head-on with league approval process

DESTIN, Fla. – Mike Slive does nothing by accident.

Every move, every public word, is carefully calibrated to serve a purpose. The commissioner of the Southeastern Conference is first-team All-Deliberate. 

So when Slive sat down with the media Tuesday to recap the first day of SEC spring meetings, it meant something when he spent most of the session talking about men's basketball. Specifically, it meant this: we play hoops in this league, too, and we want you to acknowledge it.

Several football-centric media members were rolling their eyes and checking their watches through the basketball talk, which is part of the problem the SEC is combating: basketball apathy. For the league to be as good as it can be, it needs the schools and their fans to actually care about the product and demand better performance. 

While most of the league is obsessing over whether there will be eight or nine league games come 2016, Slive is doing what he can to make SEC basketball better right now.

He knows last year’s debacle of a season can’t be repeated. The SEC can’t have flagship program Kentucky as a first-round NIT knockout victim. A 14-team power conference cannot get just three NCAA tournament bids. There cannot be five teams ranked 100 or lower nationally in the RPI, two of them languishing in the 200s.

“We had a bad year,” Slive said bluntly Wednesday.

To help avoid successive bad years, Slive has hired former NCAA tournament guru Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant for his conference. And every school has agreed to send its non-conference schedule to the league office for feedback/tweaking/outright rejection. 

“We want to make sure we play folks who help our schedule,” Slive said, likening the process to a stoplight. Some schools will get the green light on their schedules, some will get a yellow light, some will get a red – meaning stop and do it over.

Cowardly scheduling contributed greatly to the SEC’s brutal 2012-13 showing. There were far too many games against the weakest teams in the nation, where even victories were detriments in the RPI. And far too many losses to teams from weak conferences.

Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State lost to Troy and Alabama A&M. South Carolina lost to Elon. Texas A&M lost to Southern. Vanderbilt lost to Marist. Georgia lost to Youngstown State. Alabama lost to Mercer and Tulane.

And there were plenty of bad wins. The SEC played 30 games against teams Ken Pomeroy ranked 300th or lower out of 347, with every team but Kentucky playing at least one. Arkansas and LSU each played four 300-level teams, which is a virtual invitation to miss the NCAA tournament. Pomeroy rated five SEC schools between 302 and 344 in non-conference strength of schedule: Mississippi, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.

Those were all anchors weighing down the entire league. Because of the way RPI is computed, Mississippi State’s problems become everyone’s problems in the SEC. One school’s bad losses affect everyone to a degree.

On Tuesday, Shaheen dropped a 20-page document on every basketball coach in the league, analyzing their non-conference schedules from 2012-13 and showing every game that affected the conference power rating. Then he dropped the same information on every athletic director Wednesday.

“One of the things that was eye-opening to coaches was how much every team’s schedule impacts the other teams,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan.

“They’re inextricably linked,” Shaheen said.

The purpose of Shaheen’s scheduling intervention is long-term, of course. But it also has some immediacy. He said three SEC schools have submitted their 2013-14 non-conference schedules, and he is in the process of suggesting alterations.

“The next few weeks are critical,” Shaheen said. “Everyone needs to look at options.”

The primary option, in addition to simply scheduling more competitive opponents from better leagues, is to actually leave home on occasion. The RPI rewards road warriors, and those are precious few in the SEC.

“It’s not only who you play,” Shaheen said, “it’s where you play them. They need to be serious about this from the first game to the last. If they don’t go on the road and don’t play quality competition, it will be reflected at the end of the year.”

Reflected in a lack of NCAA bids. And another round of criticism.

Slive and others have pointed out that the SEC has won three national titles since 2006: Florida in ’06 and ’07 and Kentucky in ’12. But that still isn’t the same as having quality depth, which has been lacking for a while now.

There have been 19 NCAA bids the last five years, fewer than four per year. In the previous five years there were 28 bids.

“We’re losing units [of NCAA tournament revenue],” said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. “Units are money. … The commissioner overseeing [scheduling], that’s a good business decision. If scheduling is holding us back, holding some institutions back, it needs to be fixed.”

The process of fixing it is Slive dropping the velvet hammer on his basketball programs. The commissioner takes great pains not to publicly call out league members, but he can be firm when it comes to the betterment of the league. Wresting a level of control over the non-conference schedules is just such an assertive maneuver.

Slive has tried before to upgrade league scheduling, at one point several years ago bringing in respected former league basketball coach and athletic director C.M. Newton as a consultant. But that clearly didn’t take. So it’s time for more forceful measures.

Like everything else Mike Slive does, this initiative is no accident.

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