Sun Belt Basketball is Broken – From the Bird’s Nest
I’ve been covering Sun Belt Conference basketball now for 23 years. This league has had some great moments. There have been great out of conference regular season wins. There have been two teams in the NCAA tournament several times. There have been years where four teams have made the postseason (and I’m not talking about the CBI or the CIT).
But in 2014-15, the Sun Belt is as bad as I’ve seen it.
In the 90’s, it wasn’t unusual to see the Sun Belt in the top ten of the RPI. And, more often than not, the league was in the top 15.
But right now, the Sun Belt stands at #20. And, that’s the second worst ever (2010-11 the Sun Belt was #23). It’s become truer than ever when someone talks about the Sun Belt as a one-bid league. Until this week, no Sun Belt team was in the RPI Top 100 (Georgia State is there this week.) Fact of the matter is, there are four marquee players in this league (Louisiana’s Shawn Long, Georgia State’s R. J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow, and Georgia Southern’s Jelani Hewitt.) And, there are no good teams. With all respect to Georgia Southern, the current league leader, no one in this league could have finished in the top three a year ago.
As it stands right now, if one of the top two rpi teams win the postseason tournament (and right now the Georgia schools have the two best) the best they can look forward to is a #15 seed in the NCAA tournament unless someone gets on a big time roll. If it’s anyone else, the Sun Belt could have a #16 seed for the fourth time in recent memory. And, it’s equally possible that team could be in a first round (read: play-in) game.
The league is broken and needs fixing badly.
This is the first of a two part series on the league. This installment will talk about how the Sun Belt got into this mess. The next part will be some suggestions on how to get it fixed. Not every problem is fixable…and some fall under the heading of “stuff happens.” But there are plenty of things that can be done to make it better.
- THE EMERGENCE OF SUN BELT FOOTBALL—Sun Belt football began in 2001. At that time, schools started putting more and more resources into their football programs. Now there was a conference championship and a bowl game to play for. And, the money started shifting. Now, that’s an understandable thing. But if you look in the first decade of Sun Belt football, take a look at the teams that were winning in hoops: Western Kentucky, who was playing FCS football at the time, South Alabama, who didn’t play football at all for most of the decade, and Louisiana, which had little crowd support for most of the decade after the Jerry Baldwin debacle. And, it should be noted the Cajuns last championship in the decade was 2005. At many schools, men’s basketball has really become an afterthought.
- THE SHIFT IN MEMBERSHIP—Not much can be done about this one, especially when talking about the schools that chose to leave. North Texas won a couple of conference tournaments and won twenty games in four straight seasons under Johnny Jones. Middle Tennessee was always competitive but had three stellar years under Kermit Davis.. Western Kentucky was, well, Western Kentucky and carried the banner of excellence for the league. Even FIU and FAU had their moments. The Sun Belt has done the best it can in adding members, and, even though Georgia State and, this year, Georgia Southern are two of the Sun Belt’s best teams, they don’t exactly have basketball tradition. Neither does Appalachian State or Texas State. All of those schools were added because of either football tradition or football potential. UT Arlington had some random success. They were added for geography and to help get the league to twelve basketball schools, which, of course, didn’t happen because of WKU’s defection.
- THE TWENTY GAME CONFERENCE SCHEDULE---The Sun Belt is playing a double round robin this season which has really hurt the league. The more conference games you play against mediocre teams, the fewer opportunities you have for non-conference wins to help you r league. Moreover, the twenty game schedule has forced teams to play as many as five games in ten days. This year, teams played twelve games in the month of January. Twelve games in 30 days. That’s an NBA schedule. Teams are beating each other up in the league as a result of fatigue. It should be noted this was voted in by the coaches. The reason? The majority felt if the league isn’t going to bring everyone to the conference tournament, then everyone should play the same schedule to make it fair. (It should be noted Cajuns’ head coach Bob Marlin has been very outspoken when it comes to playing the twenty game schedule. He hates it.) But it isn’t fair, even with that. During the five games in ten days stretch recently concluded, one team had a bye on each night to break things up. And, in addition, you have a situation where Louisiana, for five consecutive games, is playing a team coming off a bye. Yeah, the 20 game schedule made it fair. Not.
- THE HOME/AWAY DEBATE---Ideally, a team would like to play an equal number of games home and away…or at least have the number of home and neutral site games be equal to the number of pure road games. In the Sun Belt, where most teams play anywhere from one to three guarantee games, that’s hard to accomplish. Hence, coaches are faced with a dilemma: Either play a disproportionate number of games on the road, or balance the schedule with non-Division I games. Those games make your record look good, but when you’re talking about your league RPI, (this year, anyway) you’re talking about 21 games that don’t count toward the league’s winning percentage. Thanks to the (bad) decision to play twenty games, there are only 107 non conference games to be played. Once you take out 21 non-d1 games and another twenty guarantee games which are difficult to win, that doesn’t leave many opportunities for teams to get wins that will help the league’s RPI. But the alternative is to load up with non-conference road games, which makes it much more difficult to have success. Show me a school that plays twelve home and seventeen road games and I'll show you a school that will probably have a losing record and lots of disgruntled fans.
- RIDICULOUS TRAVEL SCHEDULES---This year, Louisiana has to make separate trips to San Marcos and Arlington, Jonesboro and Little Rock, Mobile and Troy and Atlanta and Statesboro. Not being able to take care of two close geographic trips makes for more fatigue and increased travel costs. This season, the Cajuns should have been able to navigate their conference road schedule with two flights: One to Boone, the other taking in Atlanta and Statesboro. Instead, those were three separate trips. And, this last trip? The Cajuns bused to Mobile and then to New Orleans after the game. They flew to San Antonio Friday and bused to San Marcos. Then they are bused home. Tell me that makes any sense. Tell me this doesn’t hurt teams. Go ahead…tell me. And, trust me, every school has a similar horror story they can tell. With this league schedule, teams are taking money they could use to make their program better and giving it to travel agents.
Teams that have basketball traditions want a return to the “good ole days.” Whether that’s all the way back to the ‘70s or as recent as the Sun Belt in the 90’s, here’s a true statement.
Those teams didn’t have the hill to climb that Sun Belt teams do in 2015.
Is there a way to fix it? Well, that depends on how you define “fix.” Who knows if the Sun Belt can come up with a way to get the league into the top ten of the RPI. Personally, I think that ship has sailed. But there’s a lot to be done that can improve it, and in part two, I’ll give you my thoughts as to what can be done.