Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on a change in scheduling proposed for the Sun Belt Conference. Read Thursday’s issue of the Statesboro Herald for the second part of the series.
When it comes to the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament — a.k.a. ‘March Madness’ — there are some names that immediately come to mind.
Schools like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina have proven to be national powers and hardly a year goes by where they or another well-known power aren’t making runs deep into the tournament in search of a national championship. But the tournament is just as famous for its Cinderella stories. Each March, schools that casual fans have barely heard of can be found shocking the college basketball world, with some - like this year’s Loyola of Chicago team — reaching the heights of the game by making the Final Four.
Unfortunately for fans of these smaller schools and the conferences from which they hail, the bigger and richer schools from power conferences are trying to disinvite Cinderella from the ball.
In the past few years, larger conferences have thrown their weight around in an attempt to claim as many of the tournament’s 36 at-large bids. Larger conference schedules have led to fewer chances for mid-major teams to earn much-needed money and exposure for their programs and a lack of ‘power conference’ opponents on the schedule has made it easier for the tournament selection committee to turn a blind eye to smaller teams that put up incredible seasons, only to fall short of securing an automatic bid to the tournament.
With money and notoriety lacking, smaller conferences are having to get creative in order to try and stay relevant in March. And thanks in part to a longtime coach, broadcaster and business consultant, Georgia Southern and the Sun Belt Conference are looking to take new measures in order to put their best foot forward for the rest of the country to see.
Mark Adams has called the Sun Belt’s tournament championship game for the last 10 years and has recently taken up the flag for mid-major conferences that are being drowned out by their wealthier and better-known counterparts. His envisioned solution to the problem is for affected conferences to work together.
“It’s about building alliances,” Adams said. “I want to help like-minded conferences work together. Each of these conferences should have the goal of putting their best team in a position to achieve the best possible NCAA tournament seed, with a secondary goal of getting multiple teams into the tournament if a high-performing squad fails to win the conference’s tournament and receive the automatic bid.
The pitfall for lower-rated conferences, Adams said, is that the best teams in those leagues often have no choice but to hurt their ratings by playing lightly-regarded teams.
With power conferences expanding their league schedules and entering into lucrative deals with broadcasters for early-season tournaments against other marquee programs, teams from smaller schools are becoming more and more scarce on the schedules of the nation’s top teams.
The obvious downside for these schools is that they don’t get a chance to pull a head-turning upset or cash a check for agreeing to travel to a national power with no return trip agreed to. But the wheels continue to work against the smaller teams throughout the year as stats like their Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which are often used to build the national tournament field, never get a boost from playing power conference teams and instead plummet as the smaller school plays non-conference games against other mid-majors and — later down the road — must repeatedly play the bottom teams in its own conference.
Adams offered the example of UL Lafayette, which was — by any metric — the Sun Belt’s strongest team in the 2017-18 season. The Ragin’ Cajuns lost out on the Sun Belt’s auto-bid when they were bounced from the conference tournament semifinals, but their resume should have still warranted plenty of consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA’s.
Instead, a number of late-season games against conference bottom-dwellers — including a loss to 6-24 Little Rock after the Cajuns had already claimed the regular season title — pushed the Cajuns so far down in the peripheral stats that they were an afterthought as an at-large candidate before the Sun Belt tournament even began.
No amount of planning will ever take away upsets like Little Rock over UL Lafayette, but Adams has proposed - and the Sun Belt is in agreement with - a new approach to the conference’s regular season and tournament setup that will attempt to build the best possible resume for the league’s top teams to present to the tournament selection committee at the end of the season.
To learn about the proposed changes to the Sun Belt schedule, be sure to read the Thursday edition of the Statesboro Herald.