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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
SEC office wants better noncon schedules

By Eamonn Brennan

The SEC was not very good last season. Some of that was because of Kentucky's surprising struggles, and because of the eventual season-ending knee injury suffered by Nerlens Noel; when Kentucky isn't Kentucky, the SEC won't win any of those oh-so-fun "best league" arguments no matter what the rest of the league does.

But it wouldn't be fair to just blame the Wildcats. Only three teams -- Florida, Ole Miss, and Missouri -- made the tournament. Florida dominated the SEC and finished in the Elite Eight; Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss (and Wisconsin) got Andy Kennedy the first tournament win of his tenure; Missouri had a decent if defensively flaccid season end in a first-round tournament loss. Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas spent most of the spring flailing about on the wrong side of the bubble. Everyone else was either rebuilding or just plain bad.

This kind of overall systemic weakness gives coaches, athletic directors and league officials pause. Is there a systemic flaw in league? What is the problem, exactly? Does a solution exist?

Those are exactly the kinds of questions best raised at offseason meetings, and the SEC's basketball folks are doing exactly that this week in Destin, Fla. Lo and behold, the league has already decided on one step it thinks will help: better nonconference scheduling.

But it isn't just reminding coaches why scheduling is individually, or even collectively, important. It also invited former NCAA Vice President of Basketball Operations Greg Shaheen to speak to coaches about the vagaries of the RPI.

Even more impressive than a visit from Shaheen? SEC commissioner Mike Slive actually persuaded his league's athletic directors to submit their program's nonconference schedules for league review. From the Birmingham News' Jon Solomon:
The conference is still developing a process on how to analytically review nonconference schedules through Ratings Percentage Index numbers.

"Think about it like a stop light," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said today. "Some (teams) will be in a green zone, some will be in a yellow zone, and some of them might be in a red zone." [...]

"Our nonconference strength of schedule last year was 336. That's unacceptable," Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. "That impacts every team in our league in a negative way. For example, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky got left out of the NCAA Tournament. They had decent RPIs. If my nonconference strength of schedule would have been 230 instead of 330, then their RPIs are in the 40s, and now I think maybe two of the three of them get in."

Martin might be being a little bit generous there -- an RPI in the 40s isn't a guarantee of much, if a team's own nonconference schedule is weak and/or that team doesn't have good wins on its resume -- but generally speaking, he's right. When you have a handful of teams playing schedules as bad as USC's (or Mississippi State's or Auburn's), it is bound to wreak at least some small measure of mathematical havoc on bubble teams, for whom every little distinction can mean the difference between a ticket to the dance and a trip to the NIT.

So does this mean SEC coaches are going to be turning over their schedules to the league office, or scheduling collectively? Not quite. Kentucky coach John Calipari, who praised the idea, told Solomon he thought the best use was to have the SEC as a sounding board -- "'If you know you're in good shape, run with it; if you have some issues, talk to us,'" he said. Likewise, Georgia coach Mark Fox asserted that it while it might be good for the league as a whole, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for young rebuilding teams (like his own) to get their "brains beat in" every November and December. Which is also true.

Probably the best quote from the whole thing comes from Calipari (no shock there), who outlined his own proposed strategy for getting more SEC teams in the NCAA tournament:
"Probably win more games," Calipari said.

It sounds like a joke, but it's really not. Whether you agree with his stance on true road games (pardon me, "experiences") or not, Calipari knows how to strategically schedule as well or better than any coach in the country -- a product of his time at Memphis, when he had to make sure his typically talented Tigers wouldn't be punished by the RPI for dominating Conference USA. There is a science to scheduling. Smart coaches can not only ensure they aren't punished by RPI weirdness but, if they really dig in, can consistently exploit the RPI's essential dumbness to their own advantage. This is stuff any coach worth his salt ought to be deeply aware of; that the SEC feels like it needs to exert oversight over schedules is almost kind of remarkable.

Still, despite all the ways the RPI can be gamed, at the end of the day the best way to get to the NCAA tournament is to, you know, win. The SEC and its coaches can start scheduling like geniuses, but if they don't rack up at least a few key nonconference wins, the entire point is moot.