When it comes to Southeastern Conference basketball, crowning a "true" champion apparently will take a back seat to the exposure gained from scheduling attractive non-conference games and preparing the optimum profile for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings drove home that point on an SEC teleconference by backing away from an earlier suggestion that the league play a 22-game double round robin in future seasons.
"I don't anticipate that's where we'll end up," Stallings said. "But that would give us the truest form of a conference champion."
Future schedules became an issue after the SEC decided last month to do away with divisions beginning with the upcoming 2011-12 season. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said he would form a committee to explore how many league games each team will play beginning with the 2012-13 season.
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Stallings said he surprised himself at the Spring Meeting by suggesting a 22-game SEC schedule. Earlier this month, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said a 22-game SEC schedule would be "disaster" to navigate.
Stallings acknowledged that 22 games is unlikely.
"We feel we've been drug through Armageddon after 16 games," he said of the current league format. "I don't think (22 games) has got a lot of traction. But I thought it was worth bringing up and discussing."
No coach on the teleconference voiced support for a 22-game schedule.
Calipari noted that the emphasis of scheduling should be on building as good a résumé as possible for the NCAA Tournament. That would mean the strong-est Strength of Schedule and Ratings Percentage Index. Non-conference games provide the greatest flexibility in building a schedule.
"Sixteen or 18 (SEC games) is important," Calipari said. "But not as important as non-conference Strength of Schedule and RPI."
With a 22-game SEC schedule all but ruled out, the league will consider expanding from 16 to 18 games per season. Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy noted that the SEC will join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2011-12 as the only BCS leagues playing less than 18 games. So, 18 games is "where the trend is heading," he said.
Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury acknowledged that he was the lone dissenter in the 11-1 vote to do away with divisional play. The league voted to play basketball in one 12-team race, in part, to reward the top four regular-season teams with first-round byes in the SEC Tournament.
In the last two seasons, an argument could be made that the third-place team in the Eastern Division was better than any of the Western Division teams.
Stansbury conceded that the new one-league format is better equipped to assign first-round byes to the most deserving teams. But he continued to argue in favor of two divisions.
"My biggest argument is it takes away from the fans, your fans in February," he said of a 12-team race. "(Two divisions mean) more teams involved and competing for championships."
A team previously mired in sixth place could be buried in 12th place in future seasons, he said.
"(Two divisions are) great for fans and great for student-athletes," he said. "It gives them another chance to compete for another championship."
But of what value was a divisional championship if the last two Western Division champions failed to receive a NCAA Tournament bid?
This created a "perception issue," Auburn Coach Tony Barbee said.
"We almost had two separate leagues," Barbee said. "(Two divisions) didn't benefit the league as a whole."
Alabama Coach Anthony Grant noted that his Virginia Commonwealth teams played 18 conference games. An 18-game schedule gave those teams more quality opponents for the RPI and SOS.
But, he added, the lack of a round-robin schedule made for unequal league schedules, which "can be cause of a little bit of frustration and anxiety" for coaches.
Cal: UK progressing
Calipari voiced optimism about how the summer is going for a UK team that again will rely on highly touted freshmen.
"They seem to be getting along and forming good bonds," Calipari said.
Calipari noted that junior Jon Hood and sophomore Stacey Poole, plus senior Eloy Vargas will have an opportunity to make a greater impact in games.
Sidney in Houston
In an attempt to address conditioning issues, Mississippi State sophomore Renardo Sidney has been working out under the eye of former NBA player and coach John Lucas in Houston.
"He's progressing," Stansbury said with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. "We're not able to watch it. As far as we understand, it's going OK."
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