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SEC coaches debating league schedule possibilities

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for SEC LOGO UK BLUE.jpgEarlier this month, the Southeastern Conference's 12 men's basketball coaches convened in sunny Destin, Fla., for the annual league meetings and, as Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings described it, harmoniously agreed on scrapping the two-division format for one 12-team format.

The true goals behind the realignment were to generate more at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament and to reseed the SEC Tournament. The change will take action this upcoming 2011-12 season.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, citing the opportunity to compete for one more championship and the interest of the fans, was one of the few, if not the only dissenter.

"I'm all for one division," LSU head coach Trent Johnson said Monday on the SEC's summer teleconference. "I think it's the only way to basically have a true champion."

What the league didn't decide at the time and what the coaches still haven't agreed upon quite yet is how to schedule around the new one-division format. The teams will play a 16-game schedule this season, but the SEC must decide at some point if it wants to increase its league slate to 18 or 22 games.

The idea behind increasing the number of games would be to give every team an equal shot to win the conference crown. In a 22-game format, every team would play each other home and away.

Stallings admitted Monday that he was the one that proposed the 22-game format at the league meetings.

"(The 22-game schedule) is something to think about," Stallings said. "Obviously, we feel like we've been drug through Armageddon after you finish with 16 games, so you can imagine how you would feel after 22. I don't think that one will get a lot of traction but I at least thought it was worth bringing up and discussing."

Stallings wasn't ready to completely stand behind his proposal, telling reporters that "it needs to be what's best for our league," but his suggestion certainly had traction and a strong backing from many of the SEC coaches, including South Carolina's Darrin Horn.

"Theoretically, the only true, fair way to do it is to play 22 games and do a round robin," Horn said Monday.

The problem that arises that many coaches brought up Monday is the feasibility of going to 22 games. Johnson wondered about the added stress of travel and Horn questioned how it would affect TV deals and nonconference scheduling.

For a team like Kentucky, it would likely reduce a high-profile nonconference schedule.

"Kentucky, if you play 22 games, do you still get the Indiana and the North Carolina series and all those that are so good for the game of basketball and especially the SEC?" Horn said. "I don't know how that would look."

Still, "in terms of fairness, it's really the only way," Horn added.

Of the five other "high-major" conferences, three (Big 10, Big East and Pac-12) play 18 games with no divisions. The other two (Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference) play 16 games. The Big 12 is the only major conference left with divisions.

Count UK's John Calipari as one coach who isn't completely on board with a 22-game schedule.

"I really, really think 22 is a number that very few leagues do that, and there's reasons for that, so I think you're talking about 16 or 18 games," Calipari said.

If the end goal is getting more teams to the NCAA Tournament, Calipari believes the league should looker more closely at its nonconference schedule.

"Leagues that have gotten tons of teams into the NCAA Tournament have figured out it's about your nonconference strength of schedule and your nonconference RPI," Calipari said. "In other words, play the very best teams you can play and still win. You have to win. If you play a really strong schedule, like a winning percentage of the teams you play is up at like 60 and you win 12 games or 13, you're going to have the No. 1 RPI ranked schedule nonconference in the country. If the schedule you play has a 52 or a 53 winning percentage and you win 12 or 13 games or 11 games, you're going to be in the top 40 or 50 in RPI in nonconference scheduling. That's as big of an issue for us as scheduling within the conference."

If the league were to decide to stick with a 16-game schedule, it might mirror the women's current format, which was adopted for the 2009-10 season.

Each team plays home-and-home games against five schools (one permanent opponent, two teams from the same traditional division and two teams from the opposite traditional division). The non-permanent home-and-home opponents rotate every two years. The remaining home games are single games against the six other schools in the conference, with three at home and three away.

The new scheduling format is likely to be decided at next year's SEC meetings. Although the league has scrapped its two-division format, its 16-game schedule for this year will model the traditional pairings of the East-West divisions.

John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats are favorites to win the school's 27th regular-season SEC championship. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats are favorites to win the school's 27th regular-season SEC championship. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and everyone else?

In forecasting for the upcoming 2011-12 season, a couple of coaches were asked to handicap the league race next year during Monday's teleconference.

One reporter asked Florida head coach Billy Donovan if everyone was chasing Kentucky, which has the nation's No. 1 signing class for the third straight year in addition to returning starters Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller.

Donovan isn't ready to hand UK its 27th regular-season crown in June, but he did pay Kentucky a pretty big compliment in the process.

"I don't know about that," Donovan said. "I've been in the league a long time and I think that being at Kentucky at five years and being here now going on 16, Kentucky, tradition wise, has got more tradition than anybody else in college basketball. I think when you look at a program like that, every program is aspiring to build that kind of tradition. Whether it's been Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Coach (Rick) Pitino, John Calipari or Tubby Smith, Kentucky's program has been at an elite level all the way through. They've got a great program, great tradition.

"They've got a terrific guy in there right now in John, and he's done a terrific job, but Kentucky is always going to be Kentucky. It's been that way for 60 years. They've got more SEC championships than the whole entire league combined. I think it's great having a program like that in this league because they are certainly a measuring stick of what it really means to have a great, great program."

As a reporter mentioned Kentucky, Florida and Alabama as possible favorites, Georgia head coach Mark Fox made sure to include Vanderbilt as a legitimate contender. The Commodores return virtually their entire team from last year.

"When you started listing them, the team I started thinking about was Vanderbilt," Fox said. "I think they have a team that can legitimately compete for a Final Four. They have a great backcourt, they have terrific wing play, terrific shooting, they have an NBA center and I think they're well coached. I think they'll have a good bench. I think that when you start looking at the ingredients of a team, there's not much missing from Vandy's team."

Based on the league's returning star power, Donovan believes this could be the year that the SEC flexes its muscle, but he wasn't so ready to dismiss the success of the league over the last few years. The league got five teams to the NCAA Tournament last season.

"I think what happens sometimes is leagues get evaluated and judged very early in November and December," Donovan said. "I think if you look at our league, we went to the Elite Eight, Kentucky went to the Final Four. Two teams in the league made deep runs. Sometimes a league is measured by how many teams you get into the NCAA Tournament. In the last two years, it's really been all the teams on the East.

"I think it all depends on how you evaluate the league. Is it based on how many teams get in the tournament? Is it based on how many teams make a deep run? Is it what your conference does in nonconference scheduling? So I think there are a bunch of variables to look at. I think our league has done pretty well."

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