If you’ve followed my work here at KSR or other places over the last year, you know that there might not be a bigger SEC basketball honk than I am. Now to be clear, I never intended it to be this way. But it all started at this time last year, when I made a seemingly harmless comment about how I thought the SEC would be vastly improved in basketball in 2018, and how I believed that half the league (at least seven teams) would make the 2018 NCAA Tournament. It was an opinion that was largely laughed out of the room by virtually every prominent national media member (seriously, you can read their responses here).
Of course, like most things related to college basketball I was once again right. The SEC had what was unquestionably the best basketball season in recent conference history, with a record eight teams making the NCAA Tournament and six winning at least one NCAA Tournament game. Add in the fact that even the “bad” teams picked up marquee out of conference wins (LSU beat eventual Final Four club Michigan, last-place Vanderbilt beat tourney team TCU) and it’s clear that basketball in this conference has never been as healthy as it was last year. And the good news is, it shouldn’t slow down heading into next season either. While some teams will fall, the league as a whole will be strong at the top. Virtually every preseason poll has at least five SEC teams (Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State) somewhere in their Top 25. Things might not quite hit their 2018 levels a season from now. But it will be pretty darn close.
Unfortunately despite a run where virtually every program in the conference has upgraded across the board (coaches, assistant salaries, facilities upgrades) the sad truth is that to most, the SEC (outside Kentucky) is still the league where football, spring football and other sports reign supreme. Basketball is a sport that is seen by outsiders as a simple diversion in the SEC, and a step below the “real” basketball leagues like the ACC and the Big 12. The reality is that couldn’t be further from the truth. But no, it doesn’t change what the perception is.
That’s also why the SEC needs to do everything in its power to change the narrative on SEC basketball – and why Thursday was an insanely disappointing day for the league as a whole. It was on Thursday that the league announced the matchups for the annual SEC-Big 12 Challenge. And while the headline is another matchup of Kansas vs. Kentucky (excuse me as I wipe away the drool from my mouth) I couldn’t help but notice another, possibly more significant storyline. For the second straight year, some of the league’s best teams won’t participate in this event. After two NCAA Tournament teams were held out last year (Missouri and Auburn), those two schools plus LSU and Mississippi State won’t part of next year’s event either. It also means that three potential preseason Top 25 teams and three potential NCAA Tournament teams could be missing what is one of the league’s marquee basketball events.
To which I say: Shame on the SEC and its league office for such a poor, short-sighted decision.
Now to be clear, there is a reasonable explanation for why those four teams (including three which will probably make the 2019 NCAA Tournament) won’t play in the event. The Big 12 only has 10 teams, which means that there will always be four SEC teams held out of the event. The SEC previously decided to hold on the same four teams two years in a row, to ensure that every team in the league gets at least one home game, to go along with one away game for the event. The league also told the Kansas City Star on Thursday that it would also be unfair to all 14 league schools to wait until late May (when the matchups are announced) to notify schools who would be playing in the event. It could alter the whole scheduling process, since schools wouldn’t know whether they’d have a high-profile game against another Power 5 school or not until very late in the process.
To be clear, those are perfectly explainable reasons. They also aren’t a good enough reason to keep your best teams out of the event.
First off, don’t tell me that you’d have to wait until May to let the schools know whether they’d be in the event or not. By the beginning of April (when a lot of scheduling conversations happen in earnest across college basketball) most programs have a pretty good idea of what their roster will look like, and it’s pretty clear which teams will be good the following season and which ones won’t. It’s really not that hard. And if the SEC does find it that hard, well here’s a compromise: Call me. No one knows this league better. And (for a small consulting fee) I’m more than glad to advise you which teams to put in this event and which to hold out.
As for the fear that some teams will get screwed out of a home game, well, I hate to tell you SEC, but the reality is that scheduling is lopsided and flat-out unfair from time-to-time. It is in the regular season, conference tournaments and even in the NCAA Tournament. It’s unfair for high-majors and it’s certainly unfair for low majors. Not to mention that not putting your 10 best teams in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge it’s also unfair to YOUR teams as well. Seriously, you think Ole Miss (on paper the worst team in the league next year) cares they’re getting a home game if they know they’re going to get run out of the gym? Or you think they’d rather not be in this event at all? On the opposite side, you think LSU – which could be really good – wouldn’t gladly trade a road game, to play in an event that will give them national exposure? We both know the answer there.
And that last part also kind of underscores an important point here. If the SEC-Big 12 Challenge really is a showcase event for the league (which it is) isn’t it kind of counter-intuitive to not put in the teams that best showcase your conference? Honestly, what is the point of even participating in the event if you’re not going to put your best foot forward?
Which brings me to the most important point: While it might sound a little bit dramatic, not putting your best teams could have long-term implications for the league as a whole. Again, the SEC is a league still battling for respect in basketball. What happens to that respect, if say the league goes 3-7 in next year’s event, with three of its best teams sitting at home? Think that might hurt the league’s perception? And don’t you think it could hurt it in the big-picture as well as we get closer to Selection Sunday? It sounds crazy, but I don’t think it’s preposterous. If the league is “perceived” to be down, I could imagine that impact seeding, and – in an extreme case – even impact whether a team gets in or not.
Add it all up and that’s why Thursday was ultimately a bad day for the SEC league offices.
They had a chance to continue to showcase the SEC basketball brand and how far it has come.
Instead they did the opposite.
It led to frustrated fan-bases today. And could lead to even bigger problems come March.