It is one thing to schedule games like the one played Tuesday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena. It is quite another for teams like South Carolina and leagues like the SEC to win them.
From early returns – and they are early – it appears the SEC is not quite to stage two of its master plan of establishing relevancy in college basketball. USC continued the SEC’s early season trend by losing to Baylor in a hard-fought, well-played game.
“It’s a shame we let a good opportunity for our program kind of escape,” Frank Martin said following his team’s 69-65 loss.
Step one was for the SEC was to order its member programs to schedule more challenging non-conference games as a way of increasing exposure for the league and improving its national RPI.
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The current season was supposed to be phase two of the plan. SEC teams were expected to begin winning games against better competition, and discontinue losing games against lesser competition.
“We didn’t schedule this game for any reason other than to challenge our team and give our program unbelievable exposure against a big-time opponent,” Martin said.
And to win, against a Baylor squad that has established a winning tradition over the past seven seasons with four NCAA tournament appearances and two NIT showings. Never mind that the Bears are in a bit of rebuilding mode this season.
These are the kinds of games the SEC needs to begin winning to support the commitment made two years ago by commissioner Mike Slive.
That is when Slive put out an edict that said the SEC was finally serious about fielding competitive men’s basketball teams. He immediately made a couple of changes within his office to better address men’s basketball needs and, soon after, the league mandated that programs begin beefing up their non-conference schedules.
The emphasis on non-conference scheduling came following the 2013 season when the SEC was rated ninth among all conferences in the RPI and placed three teams in the NCAA tournament. Two were eliminated after one game and Florida reached the Elite Eight. Adding further humiliation to the postseason showing, the league’s showcase program (Kentucky) lost at home in the opening-round of the NIT.
Slive made it clear that no longer would it be acceptable for league members to load up on non-competitive, home victories in the early season. To that end, Slive said the league would begin critiquing and approving all non-conference schedules.
Two seasons later, every SEC team has scheduled at least two challenging non-conference games away from home, many have three on the slate, and some even scheduled four. Among the homecourts SEC teams will play on during the early season include Baylor, Clemson, Dayton, Florida State, Illinois, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Louisville, N.C. State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Oregon State, SMU, VCU, Wichita State and Xavier.
“We are, certainly, pleased that our strength of schedule, collectively, is much better than it was a year ago,” said Mark Whitworth, the SEC’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball.
“There are lot of issues you’ve got to work through, and our schools, by and large, have really bought in,” Whitworth says. “I think you’ll see the byproduct of that this year as this season unfolds.”
Whitworth was hired two years ago as the SEC’s first full-time director of SEC men’s basketball. Also brought on board in 2013 was Greg Shaheen, the former director of the NCAA Tournament, as a scheduling consultant.
Improved non-conference scheduling resulted in the SEC moving the RPI needle slightly this past season, two spots up to seventh among all leagues. Then, during the preseason, league coaches spoke loudly about how the SEC is shifting from being top-heavy with perennial powers Kentucky and Florida, to having more depth.
While it was a forceful first step toward that end by playing more quality opponents in the early season, it will not mean a thing until SEC teams begin winning those games.
So far, that has not happened. Georgia lost to Georgia Tech, Tennessee to VCU, Mississippi to Charleston Southern, Missouri to Missouri-Kansas City and Florida to Miami. Still, the SEC has six more weeks of non-conference games to implement phase two of its plan. But they need to start winning the kinds of games USC lost on Tuesday.