By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
It’s the SEC title or bust when league play opens today.
While the future of SEC basketball alignment and scheduling remains uncertain, the 2012 setup is what coaches and players must deal with right now. It was decided last spring that the SEC would abandon divisions for this season, so there will be no more East or West titles to win.
Most coaches were fine with that, the notable exception being Mississippi State’s Rick Stansbury. Florida’s Billy Donovan, who’s won four SEC championships and two national titles, won’t miss the divisional setup.
“I don’t think we’ve ever gone into the season saying, ‘Let’s win the East,'” Donovan said.
He recalled his days as a Kentucky assistant, when the SEC teams all played each other twice – but that was before the league expanded to 12 teams and split into divisions.
Still, he thought that sort of round-robin schedule determined a “true champion” of the SEC. But is a league championship even that important any more?
“I still think amongst the coaches and the players it’s important,” Donovan said. “But once you get through the regular season, a lot of the focus even goes beyond your conference tournament right into who’s on the bubble, who’s off the bubble, who’s going to be a No. 1 seed, how is the seeding going to be.
“It’s almost like everything is geared toward the NCAA tournament, and I understand that.”
The postseason was one factor in the coaches’ decision to dump divisions. They looked at last season for inspiration. Alabama won the West but was denied an NCAA berth, and a line of thinking held that if there had been no divisions, Bama would have gotten in the Big Dance.
Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com, a noted “bracketologist” who projects the NCAA tournament field, doesn’t buy that argument.
“Alabama’s problem was the division – which they would’ve still played the same schedule, and it would’ve been a bad schedule,” Palm said. “The fact that they were listed in a division, that’s an administrative construct that has nothing to do with whether or not they made the tournament.”
The move to no divisions was made before the SEC invited two more teams to join, Texas Aamp&M and Missouri. That’ll make for a 14-team league and another round of talks on scheduling.
The likely solution will be an 18- or 19-game schedule, which isn’t quite what coaches want, but they’re resigned to that probable reality. Anything beyond the current 16-game format would cut into non-conference scheduling.
“If you look at the all top-25 programs right now, we’re playing one of those schedules like, wait a minute, can you play all these road games, can you do all this stuff and add two top-25s?” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “So we’ve got to make decisions on our schedule and how we’re going to do this without overloading our players or putting the program in jeopardy.”
On the other hand, 16 games might not be enough to satisfy some coaches’ definition of a true SEC champion.
“I probably would not favor 16,” Georgia’s Mark Fox said. “With 14 teams, you need more than 16 games to really figure out who the best team is.”