The State of SEC Basketball is Disappointing

SEC Basketball is taking a step back this season.

Does it mean more in the SEC?  Well, no.  Not in Men’s Basketball and it just will not until it is really steeped in the culture.  The pride that fans have in the hyper-prioritization of one sport compared to other conferences holds the conference back from having a sustainable model of success in Men’s Basketball.  Football success is a double-edged sword as it is used as both a tool to show support for the school, but it is used also to show that the support is narrower and in the case of some schools, there is a desire to de-emphasize other sports.  The SEC has been on an ongoing initiative to raise the stature of Men’s Basketball through scheduling and enhanced streaming visibility, but it is up to the institutions and the bases themselves to buy in and put the conference on the same level as conferences that attract the “One Shining Moment” far better.  Progress has been shown in the SEC as schools have thrown money around on coaches, but one cannot buy culture.  However, this season has been a significant step back for the SEC in the non-conference slate and that debases the in-conference slate of games.

It’s Not Necessarily the “Bad Losses”, It’s the Missed Opportunities

Opportunity cost is a concept that is often lost on prominent economists who dictate how our permission-based economy works (aww that’s cute, you think we have a free market in the United States…).  It is also lost on the fans, talking heads, and journalists who cover the sport.  How the media spins the sport, the individual teams, and curates the stories often dictates how people perceive the state of things and how they should feel about it.  They will harp on the extremes and what they think will catch your attention, you just fall for it because you have nowhere else to go.

  • Missouri’s home loss to Charleston Southern.
  • Mississippi State’s home loss to Louisiana Tech.
  • Florida losing at UConn.
  • Kentucky losing to Evansville.
  • Arkansas is UNDEFEATED.
  • Alabama lost to Pennsylvania.
  • South Carolina lost to Boston University.
  • Texas A&M lost to Fairfield.

This does not tell the story of the conference.  The NCAA Tournament Committee cares about about who you beat, they care about the metrics, and they care possibly most about who you beat.  What did you actually accomplish in 29-32 regular season games and 1-5 conference tournament games?  What teams actually accomplished matters.

It’s a bit different from the College Football Playoff where some Power 5 programs that are eligible to be in the College Football Playoff would absolutely never be in it because of television ratings.  We’re sorry to Washington State, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Wake Forest, Virginia, and other programs that will not help ESPN’s ratings.  If Baylor wins the Big XII Championship, Georgia loses to LSU, Clemson somehow loses to Virginia, and Utah loses to Oregon, Baylor would still be on the outside looking into the College Football Playoff.  Why?  Ratings.  Let us all be thankful that the NCAA Tournament Committee focuses on the product on the floor.

So what was missed thus far?  There has been a full month of College Basketball in the SEC non-conference slate, here are some of the misses that you missed.

Mississippi State‘s loss to Louisiana Tech catches your attention, but something like this was coming as Sam Houston State choked away a 16 point lead at Humphrey Coliseum.  More notable for Mississippi State is that at the Myrtle Beach Invitational in Conway, South Carolina, Mississippi State had an opportunity to face not one, but two power conference teams in the tournament.  Mississippi State had to beat Villanova to get their likely shot at facing Baylor and they lost. Mississippi State ended up having to play a neutral site game that was technically a road game against Coastal Carolina and they prevailed.

Did that win help Mississippi State’s resume?  No.

Did their win over Tulane help them much?  Likely not.  There was no opportunity for redemption in Conway for Ben Howland’s Dogs.  Losses in neutral site tournaments have consequences in March.  Mississippi State’s strength of schedule and overall resume are weaker because they lost to Villanova.

Villanova’s win over Mississippi State will be used later by the NCAA Tournament Committee to compare the conferences when teams from each conference faced each other.  It is much like how Florida’s win over Xavier in the Charleston Classic will be used.

Mississippi State’s non-conference schedule was back-loaded and that is a good thing for them.  Unfortunately, the opponents may still be tough, but their positive impacts will be debased due to their opponents’ inability to meet expectations.

  • Kansas State already has a Quadrant III loss to Bradley and a Quadrant II loss to Pittsburgh.  They have played a weak schedule beyond this and they will face face Marquette before they play a neutral site game against Mississippi State.
  • Radford, which is a good team, but Mississippi State cannot let them win at Humphrey Coliseum.
  • New Mexico State, a team that is not as good as expected on a neutral floor.
  • Kent State, a quality program from the MAC that has fattened up on weak schedule thus far and is 6-1 this season (their loss is to Ohio State).
  • Oklahoma will host Mississippi State in the Big XII-SEC Challenge and it is tough to know exactly how good Oklahoma will be then.  However, this is expected to be a test for the Maroon and White Bulldogs.

Scheduling and an inability to maximize opportunities have hurt Mississippi State.  Losing to a good, yet underappreciated Louisiana Tech team does not help matters.

Ole Miss came very close to knocking off Memphis at FedEx Forum and delivering a major quality win, but close does not matter.  The Rebels beat Penn State on a neutral floor, which helps Ole Miss if they and Penn State are bubble teams.  Ole Miss failed to show up against Oklahoma State and then lost a home game to Butler.

What hurt Ole Miss the most was that they lost the games to Oklahoma State and Butler.  Splitting those two games would have helped them tremendously.  Penn State could be a beneficial win down the road, but this is their only quality win that they have.  The month of December is filled with cupcake traps that could only hurt Ole Miss’ resume.  The game at Wichita State looms large.  It cannot be cupcakes and a win over Penn State.  The SEC’s strength is too weak for Ole Miss to rely upon their conference schedule.

Missouri blew their opportunities before they tanked it for Barclay Radebaugh’s Charleston Southern team.

What has Missouri accomplished this season?  They beat teams they were supposed to beat until they did not on December 3 at Mizzou Arena.  Wofford is not the same team as last season and they will eventually rebuild under UGA alumnus Jay McAuley.

They took Xavier to overtime at Cintas Center and lost.  They were not able to keep up with Butler or Oklahoma.  They have not done anything to show that they belong.  They will have three non-conference chances to show that Charleston Southern was a fluke and that they can beat Power Conference competition.  It will not be easy as they visit The Liacouras Center in North Philadelphia to take on a strong Temple team.  They will also face a tougher Illinois team in Bud Light Braggin’ Rights in St. Louis and then their Big XII-SEC Challenge game is a doozy, they are going to Morgantown to face West Virginia (they’re back!).

Alabama gets heat for their loss to Pennsylvania, but the Ivy League is actually quite strong.  However, expecting the SEC media to understand the depth of the Ivy League is asking far too much.  The intelligent, future elite of the United States are not supposed to beat Alabama in athletic events, but they did.  Brains, athletic ability, and a huge Wawa right by campus.

Alabama is 0-3 against Power Conference programs.  They have Penn State, Belmont, and Richmond coming up to bolster the resume and show that the season can be reclaimed.  Alabama much like most of the SEC was very disappointing during the Thanksgiving tournaments.

LSU has a resume with no bad losses, but a neutral site win over Rhode Island cannot be expected to carry them in March.  The three games after Northwestern State are all challenges, but two of the three games are at the Pete Maravich Center.  One can say that Georgia and LSU have rather similar non-conference resumes, but one has better expectations than the other because of media biases and performance last season.  At some point, performance this season has to be the sole consideration rather than how the team played in past seasons.

December may not feature elite opposition, but these are Quadrant I and II wins to claim for LSU.  It is a put up or shut up time for the Tigers.  Lose and miss the opportunity to improve the resume.  This puts LSU in a very similar position as Georgia.

Generally speaking, Thanksgiving was cruel to the SEC.  The SEC was 11-15 during the Thanksgiving tournaments.  Florida and Auburn carried the conference during this time of the year.  However, Florida and Auburn did not face the quality of competition that the rest of the conference faced.  Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky did not play in a Thanksgiving tournament.

Arkansas is undefeated with their only notable win being at Georgia Tech, they will be tested by Western Kentucky at Diddle Arena.  However, the Hogs have a far softer schedule than most of the rest of the conference.  Not losing to a low or mid-major program and beating Georgia Tech are the accomplishments thus far.

Yes, the Metrics Back Up the SEC’s Drop-Off

Halfway through the non-conference schedule, the SEC has an SRS (Simple Rating System) of 10.27 presently and this is 6th in the country.  If trends hold, the SEC will be at a similar level as the 2015-16 Season or the 2014-15 Season.

The Conference Power Rating Metric per Bart Torvik

The SEC is 6th in the country in this metric as well, which measures a conference’s overall ability to win against an average Division I team.

Thus far, the SEC this season compares very well to the 2013-14 Season according to this metric.  This was a season where Georgia was a #3 seed in the SEC Tournament with a 12-6 conference record, but still did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  The SEC only had 3 NCAA Tournament bids.  The SEC actually had this happen in the 2012-13 and 2015-16 seasons.  The large number of teams from the SEC entering the Field of 68 is a very recent phenomenon and this season may be a case of regression to the mean.

The SEC is Not Top Heavy

The SEC is not “Kentucky and the 13 Also-Rans”.  Parity rules in College Basketball due to a number of factors, but to expect that the sport will be back to the way things were would deny the presence of sabermetrics in the game.

“Elite” programs are not dominating anymore, it is like how the New York Yankees dominated Major League Baseball and it all culminated in a money fueled dynasty in the Late 1990s to Early 2000s.  Sabermetrics shaped the game and hyped stars became de-emphasized or even seen as unnecessary to some teams’ success.  The Sabermetrics Era of Major League Baseball one can make the case is from 2001 to Present and the Yankees have won only one World Series.

The Sabermetrics Era started in the aftermath of the 2014-15 Season in College Basketball and it explains the type of teams and players that made the Final Four and won National Championships.  The pool of talent became less top heavy, programs that were savvy were using sabermetrics for recruiting (Texas Tech, Virginia, Creighton) while others trusted their eyes and the media (Kentucky, Alabama, Duke).  Matchups and strategy became more important than the raw talent.  The talent mattered most when it came to learning curves and executing the strategy well enough.

With this knowledge, the SEC does not have a dominant team and no programs on a national level at this time really stand out.  There is a floor to the SEC and it is low, but the non-conference schedule is most important to the programs in the middle of the pack.  How strong is the middle of the conference?  Thus far, the middle of the conference is not cashing in on opportunities to beat other Power Conference programs.  The upsets are aesthetic for the media, but the lack of accomplishments is alarming.

The SEC-Big XII Challenge is not a bailout for a conference that has a lower ceiling and a possibly well-populated basement that is propped up in the win-loss record by home wins over weaker teams from one bid conferences.

What makes this season different from previous seasons when the conference was down thus far is that the presumed top teams are extremely vulnerable and the difference between the top teams and middle of the pack is far less.  Teams like Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia, LSU are capable of knocking off Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn.  There may be a clearing floor in the conference, but the “Top Ten” of the conference can eat each other in conference play and this would be tremendously damaging if trends continue.

The upside to parity in College Basketball and in the SEC is that Kentucky can no longer waltz into any arena, expect opponents to fear them, and use the front of their jerseys to beat an opponent before a game is played.  It gives openings to other programs that have previously de-emphasized Football to cultivate unique Basketball cultures.  Cultures are not created overnight, they are in the introductory phases at Auburn, Georgia, and Ole Miss.

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