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June 27, 2013

New non-conference rule already paying dividends

Mike Slive has never been one to sit back and watch things develop. As the leader of the most powerful conference in college athletics, Slive has always known that the only way to lose top status is to become complacent. To remain at the top is a case of seeing the other conferences try to take the top spot, examine what worked well and implement that into the SEC's plans.

Obviously, Slive can't control if teams win, or win on the big stage. But he can control how the league is viewed, and after a rotten year in college athletics' second-biggest sport, he took action.

All SEC teams are being required to present their non-conference men's basketball schedules to the SEC for approval before releasing them this year. The idea is to at least have some intriguing early matchups that will draw the nation's attention, and to avoid low RPI and strength-of-schedule that would leave NCAA tournament bubble teams on the outside looking in.

Slive had to do something, after the SEC placed a mere three teams in the last NCAA tournament (Ole Miss, Missouri and Florida). The Tigers were bounced in the first round, the Rebels in the second. Only the Gators did something notable, advancing to their third straight Elite Eight.

The pundits may have been willing to give the SEC a break. Nobody could have seen Kentucky, coming off a national championship season, stumbling to the NIT last year after losing top recruit Nerlens Noel to a mid-season knee injury. Vanderbilt lost almost all of the talent that had won the SEC tournament title in the previous season. Just two years ago, the SEC had five of 12 teams in the NCAA tournament, which was right on the average it had from 1997-2008.

Slive didn't buy any excuses. Since that run from 1997-2008, when the SEC never failed to place at least five teams in the NCAA tournament and placed six teams in eight of those seasons, the league had sent three, four, five, four and three teams. And in 2013, Ole Miss had nearly played itself right out of an at-large spot with a string of late-season losses, before winning the SEC tournament to grab the automatic pass.

Something had to be done, especially as the league grew to 14 teams. Seven conferences, including the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West, had more teams in the NCAA tournament than the SEC.

So Slive announced that non-conference schedules would have to be approved. He compared it to a traffic light - some teams would be told to go, some would be told to wait a moment, some would be told to stop, and re-do them. While there haven't been any headlines of teams having to re-do their schedules (yet), not all schedules have been released.

Yet, it's already sunk in. Ole Miss released its non-conference schedule this week, and it was a significant upgrade. Long a coach who scheduled cupcakes in the non-conference and then hoped a .500 record in the league would get him to the NCAA tournament, coach Andy Kennedy didn't take any chances after nearly losing another chance at the big dance last year. The Rebels will travel to Coastal Carolina, Kansas State and Western Kentucky, while playing Georgia Tech and either Penn State or St. John's in Brooklyn, N.Y., and hosting Oregon and Mercer.

"Our non-conference schedule is set up to prepare us for the rigors of SEC play," Kennedy said in a statement. "We feel this schedule will challenge us to forge our identity early on in our quest to repeat as SEC champions."

Kentucky, having reloaded with another sheaf of McDonald's All-Americans, and Florida will be preseason Top-10 teams. Tennessee may be in the preseason Top 25 as a much-improved team. LSU, Alabama, Vanderbilt (after a strong end-of-season run) and Missouri are in the spots below the top three, as teams that could make a run. If Arkansas can ever figure out how to win on the road, it can join that group.

The SEC has basketball talent, and tradition, having three teams win four national championships in the past 20 years (Florida twice, Kentucky and Arkansas) and having two other teams make the Final Four once each (LSU, Mississippi State). But Slive didn't want to see the trend of only three or four teams making the NCAA tournament continue, not when the SEC has already gained a reputation of being inferior in men's basketball and not when the league is at the top of football and baseball, with at least a No. 2 showing in women's basketball.

He issued the ruling and will see how much teams abide by it. While South Carolina has yet to release its entire non-conference schedule, known games have the Gamecocks playing in a tournament in Hawaii over the Christmas holidays and traveling to Oklahoma State for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, plus the annual rivalry game with Clemson (on the road this year). Coach Frank Martin played the schedule he was given last year, but made sure that everyone knew that it wasn't his preference. He has promised a makeover from last year's slate, which helped the Gamecocks finish No. 167 in strength of schedule.

Even though he was rankled by Slive's ruling when he first heard about it.

"When I first heard about it, I wasn't happy," Martin said on the SEC coaches' teleconference earlier this week. "I like to do my own schedule. I'm not in kindergarten anymore. I think I can take care of my responsibilities.

"But I can also understand, because we, South Carolina, were part of the problem with non-conference schedules. We have to do a better job of scheduling to represent our institution and the conference we take part in. That's a problem of what we did, and after being through it, I understand what Commissioner Slive did and I support it."

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