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Monday, June 7, 2010
SEC fails to change conference tourney

By Eamonn Brennan

The talk out of conference meetings the past week has centered on the obvious: conference expansion. But there was a slightly under-the-radar discussion happening in the SEC -- which appears uniquely unaffected by the conference expansion talk anyway. It would have changed something most hoops observers would have welcomed: a better SEC tournament format.

As it currently stands, the SEC uses its two divisions to seed the conference tournament. The top two teams in each of the East and West divisions gets the two top seeds in the tournament bracket; both of those teams receive a first-round bye.

There is an obvious problem with this: One SEC division is consistently and considerably better than the other. In the 2010 bracket, Mississippi State and Ole Miss both received first-round byes. That's because both were members of the conference's West division, which went 7-29 against the East in 2009-10. Meanwhile, Tennessee, a team with a much better record and a surefire NCAA bid in its pocket, was a No. 3 seed. It had to win its first-round game just for the right to play Ole Miss, an NIT team. The Volunteers promptly beat the Rebels on their way to an Elite Eight finish in the NCAA tournament.

The same thing happened to the No. 4 seed from the East, Florida, an NCAA bubble team which won its first-round game over Auburn before losing to No. 1-seed Mississippi State in the second round of the tournament. Obviously, this isn't very fair.

There was some good news out of the SEC last week. Conference commissioner Mike Slive said the conference would discuss and consider changes to the tournament. Yay! The bad news? Those changes didn't happen. The league couldn't agree on a solution, so the current format will remain for at least one more season. Um, boo?

It's hard to see why the conference wouldn't be able to get behind a few simple changes to this format, which actively hurts potential tournament teams looking to improve their seeds before the NCAA fun begins. The SEC is one of the few major conferences that fails to seed its teams according to overall record in the league. It works for the rest of the BCS conferences -- Big Ten, the Pac-10, the Big 12, and pretty much everyone else, come to think of it. The SEC divisions are useful for scheduling simplicity, sure, but there's no reason why they should dictate seeding in such drastic fashion.

How's this for a solution (which doesn't involve getting rid of the divisions altogether, perhaps a bridge too far for some of the coaches and athletic directors): Keep the divisions, keep the schedule, but seed each team 1-12 based on overall conference record at the end of the year.

It's an extremely simple fix. It's also extremely fair. This way, you still have to test your mettle primarily against teams in your own division. But if you couldn't manage a better overall league record than the third or fourth-best team in the East, you won't reap unearned benefits in the conference tournament.

The only people who might not like this idea are the two teams in the West division who benefit from geography and tradition more than basketball ability; they get to spend an extra day resting and scouting before taking on potentially superior, more proven opponents in the SEC tournament. But they're biased, so they don't count. Everyone else should be on board, right?

Oh well. Better luck next year, eh?