The fine folks at Mr. SEC have an interesting look at this idea, which was also mentioned during the broadcast Sunday and would have surely been bounced around SEC focus groups and thinktanks, if those were real. This down year for the SEC West is the driving force of the argument, as the top two teams in that division still get byes despite both of them having lesser records than all four top teams in the East.
Mr. SEC’s main argument is that the current system causes the best teams to play each other too early in the tournament, thus affecting its competitive balance. That is absolutely true but doesn’t go far enough. The system doesn’t even help the teams that get the byes, and instead manages to do a disservice to all the conference teams. Good teams in the better division may have to play an extra game, while teams at the top of the weaker division may be denied a chance to get the single extra win it would take to get into the dance. Take Ole Miss this year, for example. This season, they have a bye through the first round and a likely date with Tennessee (another screwed team) in the second. They’ll lose and their bubble will burst, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The solution Mr. SEC and others propose, and one I wholeheartedly agree with, is to instead seed the tournament 1-12 based on conference record, regardless of division. In this setup, Ole Miss could get a first-round win against Georgia and move on to face Vanderbilt, a game that they probably would drop but whose impact would be softened by the preceding win. Of course, this is just an example, and not even a particularly good one, but it’s hard to argue that both Tennessee and Ole Miss would be better off in the alternate system. Tennessee would get the bye they earned by finishing with the 3rd best record in the conference, and the Rebs would get a win to improve the committee’s perception of them over what it would be if they simply lost their first game of the tournament. That’s win-win.
Now, relative strength of schedule could be an issue, since the West teams will still play each other more and obviously have an easier conference slate as a result. However, if the East teams handle the head-to-head matchups, as they did this season, they would still get the byes so long as they didn’t poop the bed against their own division. This year, none of the West teams would have stolen byes under the alternate system despite having easier schedules. If there really is a disparity between the two divisions, the potential schedule strength question should resolve itself like this every year.
The proposed system would benefit everyone, as good teams are rewarded, teams that need a win get the opportunity, and the most competitive tournament bracket is the outcome. In fact, there seem to be few reasons to keep the tournament structured the way it is, or at least few reasons that I’ve heard while sitting in my living room writing this. But, then again, that’s what you all are for. Please, explain to me why I’m wrong in the comments. Or just enjoy the fact that Kentucky is way better than everyone in the SEC and this will never actually be an issue for us. Either way.