The trick for SEC basketball: Play better, for longer

Crystal LoGiudice-US PRESSWIRE

Yesterday, a series of Tweets from Wes Rucker (a Tennessee beat writer for 247 Sports and enjoyable Twitter presence), passing along a rant from an understandably angry Cuonzo Martin. It raised a few points I wanted to address.

1. I understand why Cuonzo Martin is frustrated. In each of the last two years, his Tennessee team has played its best ball at the end of the season but come up just short of a tourney bid. And in 2011, with Missouri State, his team won eight of its last 10 (though, granted, the losses were to iffy Valparaiso and Indiana State teams). That has to be maddening.

2. I also understand why none of Cuonzo's teams made the tournament. "Last 10/12 Games" is no longer part of the report the Committee uses, nor should it be. In 2011, Missouri State did lose to Valparaiso, Indiana State (twice), Evansville and Northern Iowa; all of those teams ranked worse than 100th in Pomeroy's rankings. In 2012, Tennessee finished 18-14 overall; they may have won eight of nine to finish the regular season, but they also lost six of nine to start the season. And while you don't want November and December to carry too much weight, losses to Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston were, um, noticeable. This year, Tennessee started 11-10, albeit with mostly respectable losses (Oklahoma State, Georgetown, Virginia, Memphis, Ole Miss twice, Alabama, Kentucky). Here's the thing, though: As late as February 13, Tennessee ranked 100th in Pomeroy's rankings. I don't reference Pomeroy in a "the committee uses his numbers" way -- they don't. I use it to prove that Tennessee was a pretty bad team until mid-February. (Yes, they were pretty decent in December, faded, then rallied.) They looked good late, destroying Kentucky and beating Florida and Missouri, but waiting until mid-February to look good does not get you into the dance.

3. This isn't about "scheduling aggressively." Referencing the (admittedly awful) non-conference SOS numbers for five SEC teams doesn't matter if you're also referencing Pomeroy's rankings. Pomeroy has a true performance evaluation metric -- you can prove yourself no matter who you play. It's not that those teams' Pomeroy rankings were poor because they played a bunch of awful teams; it's that those teams' Pomeroy rankings were poor because they played poorly against those awful teams. Granted, scheduling aggressively offers you more opportunities for bigger wins, and as I found in looking at past committee decisions, big wins benefit you more than poor losses hurt you. Scheduling a bunch of cupcakes does hurt your RPI (which is, sadly, very much emphasized in the committee room; that's another thing I definitely found), but you can overcome that if you play well for most of the season. Tennessee very, very much did not.

4. The committee care "just who you play." At least, not as much as who you beat. Yes, the RPI takes this into consideration, and yes, a tougher schedule might earn you some benefit of the doubt. But again, the most important factor is playing well. Tennessee finished 67th in Pomeroy's rankings, and I believe those metrics are weighted more heavily toward recent performance. Only one team -- Temple (68th) -- ranked lower than Tennessee got an at-large bid, and the Owls' non-conference strength of schedule, according to Pomeroy, was only 108th. Again, one should aim for a quality non-conference schedule because of the opportunity for wins. But you can overcome a poor one by looking good.

5. Martin brought up a very good point, however, about SEC scheduling. Never mind non-conference scheduling. With three horrendous teams (South Carolina, Mississippi State, Auburn) involved and four more ranked between 85th and 101st according to Pomeroy (certainly not bad, but not elite, obviously), teams' in-conference strength of schedule was incredibly random. Alabama faced Mississippi State, Georgia, and Auburn twice and got to 12-6 in conference despite winning only one game against the conference's top four teams (they beat Kentucky at home). Here's the thing, though: that light schedule didn't cost Alabama an NCAA Tourney bid. Losses to Mercer, Tulane and Auburn did. And Tennessee's own relatively light schedule didn't hurt the Vols as much as that whole "not playing very well until mid-February thing.

6. Billy Donovan gets it. From The Trib's Steve Walentik:

"I said this from the beginning of time, when you have coaching changes, when you have player turnover, when you have departures of really good players, there’s going to take some time, and the unfortunate part with all those transitions going on is you really pay the price in November and December when you start playing games," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. "You take a team like Georgia that plays a real tough nonconference schedule, loses some games, don’t get off to a great start in the SEC, and then all of the sudden, they were playing as good as anybody. They took everybody to the wire. They won games. They played really, really good basketball.

But perhaps he doesn't totally get it.

"But what happens is your league gets labeled in November and December, and then what happens is your league now starts playing against each other, and the league’s been labeled."

I mean, the SEC definitely got labeled in November and December, but it got labeled because a bunch of its teams were playing horribly. That sometimes happens when you've got new coaches, new rosters, etc. But if Alabama had beaten Mercer and Tulane, or if Georgia hadn't lost to, well, everybody (Youngstown State, South Florida, Georgia Tech, Iona, Mississippi State...), then their resumes would have been a lot more interesting. The "label" didn't hurt so much as the losses.

The bottom line: Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, and even teams like LSU, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M all spent at least a small portion of the season looking like NCAA-caliber teams. But they didn't do it enough, and they missed the NCAA Tournament because of it. Missouri lucked out in a bit by both playing good teams early and playing well against those good teams, and it allowed the Tigers to withstand some road woes, a lot of which were caused by injuries to Laurence Bowers, Keion Bell and Tony Criswell. And at the end of the season, the three teams that ranked in the Pomeroy Top 40 (No. 1 Florida, No. 18 Missouri, No. 34 Ole Miss) got in. Those that didn't, didn't.

The key is simple: Play better, and for a longer period of time. The SEC was a league in transition this year, and it didn't do enough of the former or the latter. I expect that to change next year, honestly. Florida will undergo some serious transition, as could Missouri (especially if Phil Pressey leaves, and I don't think he will). But Kentucky will reload, Ole Miss will return Marshall Henderson and a bunch of underclassmen who contributed more toward the end of the year, Alabama returns almost everybody, Tennessee returns almost everybody, Arkansas might return everybody unless B.J. Young or Marshawn Powell go pro, LSU returns everybody of importance but Charles Carmouche, Georgia could return almost everybody if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returns, and Vanderbilt (which won six of eight to finish the year) returns everybody. There won't be a Florida next year, but there could quite easily be closer to six tourney-caliber teams. As long as they prove their tourney readiness a little earlier, anyway.

Hey, if the message the league receives is "Schedule better in non-conference play," I don't have a problem with that -- better games are fun. But how you play in those games ends up mattering more than anything else.

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