Morris: Tournaments determine champions, not conference strength

April 2, 2014 

USC coach Frank Martin applauds a play during a game in January at Colonial Life Arena.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com

FRANK MARTIN talked throughout the SEC men’s basketball regular season about the bad rap the league was getting. It was a strong conference, he insisted, despite having one team ranked in the Top 25 by the close of the regular season.

So, now we are to believe that Martin was right all along since Florida and Kentucky of the SEC are among the four teams still playing for the national championship.

Meanwhile, Dawn Staley mentioned on occasion during the women’s basketball regular season how strong the SEC was because of its quality depth. Having Tennessee (No. 3), South Carolina (8), Kentucky (11) and Texas A&M (14) in the final Top 25 poll supported her claim.

So, now we are to believe that Staley was blowing smoke, the league was overrated because not one team reached the Final Four, and two of the team’s that fell short – Tennessee and USC – entered the NCAA tournament as No. 1 seeds.

My sense is that we should have believed Staley all along, not Martin.

The strength of a conference in any sport, whether it be football, baseball, basketball, water polo or sand volleyball should be judged on the regular season, not on a few games in the postseason. A conference with top to bottom strength should also weigh more heavily in the discussion than one that features a couple of national championship contenders.

As long as college athletics have been divided into conferences, which is pretty much forever, discussions have existed about which one is stronger than another. Some conferences have long been powers in a specific sport, such as the Big Ten and SEC in football, the ACC and Big East in basketball, and the SEC and Pacific-12 in baseball.

For the most part, those labels carry from year to year. Then, when another conference wins a national title in a sport usually dominated by one, the newcomer to the championship scene attempts to claim a measure of supremacy.

That is precisely what happened this past college football season. The SEC is widely regarded, year-in and year-out, as the most powerful football conference in the country. Few would argue with that since six to eight teams annually are considered among the top teams in the land. That the SEC won seven consecutive national titles only solidified its standing.

Florida State of the ACC snapped that streak this past season. Yet even the staunchest of ACC fans knew better than to claim ACC supremacy over the SEC based on that championship. The Florida State title did not change the ACC’s reputation for being top-heavy in football with seldom more than two teams considered among the nation’s best.

The same holds true for SEC men’s basketball. Florida, the nation’s top-ranked team and the No. 1 seed entering the NCAA tournament, is the favorite to claim the SEC’s fourth national title since 2006. The Gators won back-to-back crowns in 2006 and 2007, and Kentucky claimed the title in 2012.

Again, just like the ACC in football, the SEC should not waste any breath trying to persuade anyone it is the best league in men’s college basketball. A tournament run to the title says more about getting hot at the right time than it does about the strength of a conference.

Rpiratings.com ranked the SEC seventh among men’s basketball conferences this season. Interestingly enough, the top-ranked conference, the Big 12, does not have a team in the Final Four. How bad was the SEC? Six of the league’s 14 programs were ranked 120 or below. That is not a strong conference.

By contrast, in women’s basketball, the same ranking service has the SEC as the top league in the country with seven teams among the top 47. At the bottom, Missouri (104) and Mississippi (157) were below the 100 mark. That is a strong conference.

Billy Donovan, the highly successful Florida men’s coach, said during the NCAA tournament that a conference should not be judged too harshly by some of its early season, non-conference losses. He was speaking of Auburn’s loss to Northwestern State, USC’s to USC Upstate and Texas A&M’s to North Texas, among others.

Donovan’s point was that teams get better as the season progresses. Tennessee and Kentucky are the best examples of that, with both teams playing top-level basketball when it counted in the postseason.

But even with those comments, Donovan was smart enough to back away and lend some perspective on a league’s strength.

“I would say this: Just because certain league teams get knocked out early (in the NCAA tournament) doesn’t mean the league is overrated,” he said during the NCAA tournament. “And because a league really, really advances in the tournament doesn’t mean the league is great.”

Exactly. The strength of a conference, in men’s or women’s basketball, is determined by how well it plays during the regular season. Tournaments are left to determine champions, not strength of a league.

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