Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY Sports
Fifty days from Saturday, the NCAA tournament selection committee will unveil a 68-team bracket that serves as a report card of sorts for conferences nationwide. This season it will take on heightened importance for one league in particular.
Despite boasting three of the past eight national champions - more than any other league - Selection Sunday in recent years has not been kind to the Southeastern Conference, which earned just 19 tournament berths in the past five years combined. After seeing only three teams reach the tournament last season, Commissioner Mike Slive called it "unacceptable."
Slive took action. He smartly tapped Mark Whitworth to be in charge of men's basketball and hired scheduling consultant Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA tournament guru who understands the selection process as well as anyone. Shaheen gave every SEC coach a 20-page report that broke down the league's non-conference schedules the previous season and how every outcome affected the SEC's power ratings. And the SEC adopted league-wide guidelines for teams to submit non-league schedules for review and approval.
The question: How much has it helped?
SEC basketball is an intriguing case study because the league is overshadowed by the dominance of its football conference, which came within 79 seconds this month of crowning an eighth consecutive national champion. But the league this offseason rightly addressed growing issues in men's basketball: Between 2004 and 2008, the SEC averaged 5.6 NCAA tournament berths per year. The last five seasons? The SEC averaged just 3.8 berths.
C.M. Newton, the former Kentucky athletic director and current consultant to Slive, said Slive's move to create the position of associate commissioner for men's basketball for veteran staff member Whitworth was a "bold move that was badly needed."
Six teams improved their strength of non-league schedule ratings, and Whitworth expects "significant improvement" once they get a full year to review the schedules and engage in "constructive dialogues" with the 14 schools. But several SEC teams still underwhelmed on the court in non-conference play, which establishes an initial benchmark for teams and leagues.
That has left the SEC with two potential Final Four teams - Florida and Kentucky - and a cluster of teams that have yet to distinguish or separate themselves. The SEC could see as many as five teams make the NCAAs. A doomsday scenario also exists for it to earn only two bids.
"As long as we lose outside the league," Newton told USA TODAY Sports, "people are going to say we are an inferior product. And we are not."
The league is rated the nation's seventh-best in the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement of teams' strength that the selection committee uses in part to help determine berths and seeds. While 70% of the teams in the Big 12, arguably the nation's strongest league, rank inside the RPI's top 50, just 14% of SEC teams - Kentucky and Florida - rank inside the top 50, entering this weekend.
Five teams - Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, LSU and Arkansas - rank between 50 and 66 in the RPI. That's part of the problem - no separation among middle-of-the-pack teams. Entering this weekend, no conference has had more league games decided by four points or fewer or in overtime, according to KenPom.com.
"I think the league is better than the math says it is," Bruce Pearl, who coached six seasons at Tennessee and is now an ESPN analyst, told USA TODAY Sports. "I feel a resurgence. You just don't see it consistently enough."
But with the exception of Kentucky's Big Blue Nation, how many SEC fan bases pay much attention to non-conference play?
Most, Newton said, don't turn their attention to basketball until after the football season, which includes National Signing Day in early February. The SEC tournament in New Orleans two seasons ago was dominated by spring football talk. And Newton said it was "inexcusable" that his local newspaper in Alabama did not have a story in Wednesday's editions about the upcoming Alabama-Florida basketball game.
"The media in our area has dissipated to the point where it has affected basketball some," Newton said. "Nothing in the paper Wednesday about the game. That's not the exception, that's the rule in the South. The newspapers have dried up. They don't have the money or interest. It's a different world."
Regarding the fan support, Pearl, who led Tennessee to the NCAAs each of his six seasons, added: "There are way too many half-packed houses in the SEC for the conference overall to approach the domination they have in football. When you go into a gym and it's half empty, you have a chance to go in there and steal one. ... The alumni associations in every town in the SEC, think about how they mobilize in football season. Those are kinds of things that need to happen for a number of programs. The fan bases are there in the SEC. They just have to tap into them."
Kentucky coach John Calipari said before the season that improving the league's strength is a "responsibility for all of us. We can all be about our own programs and we will all go down one by one, or we can be about each other. You have to bury the jealousy and let's go."
To that point, Pearl recalled that he took great interest in rooting for other SEC teams in non-league play, saying, "As a coach in the SEC, it was hard to root for Kentucky. But I rooted for them in the non-conference all the time. I knew that was self-serving and that would help us."
And much of it comes back to scheduling. Last season, four SEC schools - Mississippi, Mississippi State, Auburn and South Carolina - had non-league schedules rated 280th or worse in strength. This season, just two - Auburn, Mississippi State - had non-league schedules ranked that low.
Some SEC schools need to "take on a mentality of Gonzaga, Butler and Xavier and VCU," ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes told USA TODAY Sports. "You can't hide behind your major conference label any longer. You have to go out and schedule hungry. You have to schedule aggressively. You have to schedule with the (mind-set): We have something to prove."
Whitworth said he and Shaheen encourage schools to schedule teams rated 200 or better in the RPI. But they avoid a hard-and-fast formula because, in a 14-team league, teams are in various stages of growth. Some coaches have better job security than others and can be more ambitious in scheduling. As Wichita State's Gregg Marshall says, "All of us coaches have this innate ability called self-preservation. Everybody is trying to keep their job."
"I know it's tough, I've been there," Pearl said. "We're all battling to save our jobs every year and be able to get to the next contract. You are concerned about overscheduling. You schedule yourself enough games you can win, and then your RPI gets down some place where it hurts the league."
Alabama's Anthony Grant played one of the nation's toughest non-conference schedules (seventh-best). Problem is, the Crimson Tide lost most of those games - to Duke, Xavier, Wichita State and UCLA - and Grant is "paying for it right now," Newton said. "A bunch of people want to get rid of him. I think he's on the hot seat in the minds of some, but not in the minds of anyone that counts."
Tennessee (Jordan McRae) and Arkansas (Rashad Madden) are two SEC teams that could potentially win NCAA tournament games ... if they can get there.(Photo: Randy Sartin, USA TODAY Sports)
In the eyes of Pearl and Newton, Arkansas exhibits the greatest disparity in home and road performance of any team they recall seeing. The Razorbacks beat Kentucky at home but lost to Texas A&M and Georgia on the road. Almost unbeatable at home, the Razorbacks are 2-21 in road games in coach Mike Anderson's three seasons.
"I've never seen a disparity quite like that," Pearl said. "They don't know what is going to work on the road because nothing has."
Then there's Georgia, which suffered six losses during non-conference play only to rebound in SEC play to upset NCAA tournament hopefuls Missouri and Arkansas. As a result, Georgia hurt the RPIs of those teams, thus hurting their tourney chances. League-wide youth, Missouri coach Frank Haith said, has yielded inconsistency.
"One of the ingredients is having older guys," Haith said. "Our league right now is a young league."
Newton believes the selection committee now places too much emphasis on the RPI. When he served on the committee, Newton said, there was more of a "gut level" assessment of teams, adding, "This has gotten way too scientific."
That echoes remarks made by then-Maryland coach Gary Williams in 2006, when Williams and other coaches accused the Missouri Valley Conference of gaming the system in getting four teams - as many as the ACC that season - into the NCAA tournament with shrewd scheduling practices to bolster their RPI. Williams called the movement "Revenge of the Nerds."
But it works, and now the SEC is trying to take advantage. But the problem when teams reached SEC play is that upward mobility is limited. Only wins against Florida or Kentucky will result in a notable boost in the RPI.
"Kentucky and Florida get everybody's best shot because that is their game to say, 'We belong in the NCAA tournament,' " Dykes said. "They not only are getting everybody's best shot, but they are getting everybody's best shot followed by their second-best shot and their third-best shot - all piled into one game. The stress and importance and magnitude of the game, everything is amplified."
Dykes said he thought the SEC would be stronger this season. He noted that Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Missouri all have the potential to win a game in the NCAA tournament. But can they get to the tournament?
And will the league that has absorbed its share of barbs in recent years have more to celebrate on Selection Sunday than the coming spring football season?
"Anything above what we did last year would be improvement," Whitworth said. "Five (bids) would be very significant progress for us. No doubt we have a lot of work to do, but with the commissioner's vision, we can have an impact. If you looked at SEC basketball as a stock, I think it's a really good time to buy."