Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series. To read about the origins of proposed changes to the Sun Belt Conference basketball schedule, pick up a copy of the May 16 edition of the Statesboro Herald or log on to statesboroherald.com.
With the nation’s richest and most recognizable basketball conferences on the verge of shutting out competition from mid-majors when it comes to at-large bids in the annual ‘March Madness’ national tournament, some smaller conferences — including the Sun Belt — are looking for innovative new ways to prove that their best teams belong.
The ultimate goal for the Sun Belt is to produce a conference champion each season that is able to benefit from a solid schedule that will make it a candidate for a higher seed placement in the national tournament. Additionally, the schedule configuration is also set up to make the best possible case for an at-large bid for a second conference team that produces excellent regular season results without winning the conference tournament and the league’s automatic bid into the national bracket.
The first step is to get multiple conferences working together.
“With larger conferences expanding their conference schedule, there are over 100 out-of-conference games that could be opportunities for Sun Belt teams that are being eliminated,” said Mark Adams, an ESPN broadcaster and former collegiate head coach who also runs a consulting business that has taken an interest in benefitting mid-major conferences. “By working with each other, conferences can set up games between top teams that will give them the maximum benefit when being considered by a selection committee.”
In this model, the Sun Belt would team up with a partner conference to provide a pair of home-and-home non-conference matchups for each member school.
Many power conferences have built high-dollar, made-for-TV spectacles around a ‘conference showdown’ narrative — think ACC vs. Big Ten Challenge — but the Sun Belt’s route works a different angle. Each offseason, upcoming matchups in the non-conference slate will seek to match up teams that are on a similar level, with a running three-year average Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), as well as outgoing seniors and recent recruiting class rankings taken into account.
The desired end result — assuming the top teams play to form throughout the year — is that the Sun Belt’s top teams will have several non-conference wins against teams with solid resumes. That would be a welcome change from the current state of affairs in the league where teams try to claim ‘quality losses’ against nationally prominent programs while their RPI takes a hit for playing non-Division I teams for the sake of filling the schedule.
But the real fun will come in conference play.
Under the proposed new format, the Sun Belt would split into 6-team East and West divisions. Each team would play home-and-home against the five teams in its division, while playing each team in the opposite division once, with three of those games at home and three on the road.
After those 16 games — around early February — the standings will freeze. The 12 schools will be grouped into four pods of three teams, with the top three comprising one pod, places 4-6 the next pod, and so on. The final four games of each team’s regular season would be a home-and-home series against the other two teams in its pod.
For perspective, this system would have seen the 2017-18 season freeze just after Georgia Southern’s home win over Georgia State, with Georgia Southern, Georgia State and UL Lafayette taking seats in the top pod.
“You look at Louisiana losing to Little Rock after they had already clinched the regular season,” Adams said. “That destroys their RPI, but there’s no reason that game should be played. By utilizing the pods, the best teams will continue to boost their ratings by playing other good teams.”
The teams from the top pod will be guaranteed the top three seeds in the conference tournament, which will only feature 10 teams. That means that the final pod will be just as competitive as only one school from the group will make the postseason.
In a callback to recent Sun Belt tournaments, the top two seeds will automatically be placed in the semifinals, with the third and fourth seeds sitting in the quarterfinals. The games leading up to the quarterfinals will be played at on-campus sites, hopefully drumming up larger crowds for lower-seeded teams and reducing the cost to the league of playing out an entire week’s worth of games in New Orleans.
The tournament will certainly put its thumb on the scales in favor of the highest seeded teams, but they will have earned it through a tougher regular season slate. More importantly, they will be set up for more success if they can finish the job and cut down the nets in New Orleans.
“The conference needs to put its best foot forward,” Adams said. “They need to take every advantage and opportunity to promote their best teams and show that they are deserving of more than a random 13 or 14 seed in the national tournament.”
The proposed changes haven’t yet been approved by the Sun Belt, but Adams said that he has received positive feedback after meeting with all 12 member schools.
Conference USA is expected to announce a schedule similar to this structure in the near future, and with the Sun Belt currently hosting its year-end meetings, a shakup to Georgia Southern’s scheduling future might not be far off.