Optimism emerging for SEC basketball

In the past five years, a popular refrain — or slight — has taken hold in describing the Southeastern Conference on the hardwood:

It’s a football conference with a basketball problem.

Slotting a paltry three squads in last year’s NCAA tournament was a public relations blow, and a youth-laden Kentucky squad filled to the brim with McDonald’s All-Americans watched Robert Morris bounce the SEC’s banner carrier from the first round of the NIT.

“We had a bad year,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said at the conference’s spring meetings.

Sure, all might be well in Lexington with UK and in Gainesville at Florida — blue bloods with four Final Fours and three national titles since 2006 — but it has been lean times in Baton Rouge, Starkville, Fayetteville and Athens.

There’s also another axiom. It’s about economics, but it’s fitting: If the middle class struggles, so does America.

Loosely translated, steady programs at LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia eroded amid a cycle of coaching turnover, recruiting struggles and poor scheduling. The trickle-down effect hit home last season.

A year later, on the cusp of conference play, the middle tier of the SEC needs to right itself to combat its public-relations problem and avoid another hit to its coffers through reduced NCAA tournament revenue.

“None of us have ever wanted to use football as an excuse for why basketball isn’t where it should be,” said SEC Associate Commissioner Mark Whitworth, who was charged by Slive with overseeing basketball. “Are we doing the things we need to do to make sure this league competes at the highest level?”

The answer doesn’t matter solely for the conference’s ego, either. Finding a solution translates into dollars, too.

The SEC’s projected revenue from last year’s NCAA tournament could dip to $13.5 million for this season, down from the $16.2 million haul for 2011-12.

No one disputes the value of Kentucky or Florida as breadwinners. But LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Georgia generated 33 units of revenue — money is doled out to conferences for every game a team plays in — combined over the past decade.

“There’s certainly a component of that to any discussion,” Whitworth said. ‘The numbers are what they are. These athletic directors are businessmen, and they understand fewer teams in the NCAA tournament has an impact on the bottom line.”

Analyzing the struggles of those programs is relatively easy. LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee underwent coaching changes in the past three seasons, and Georgia’s Mark Fox is potentially on the hot seat this year.

What those jobs have in common is that administrators turned to coaches from outside the SEC’s footprint to oversee programs.

Arkansas cycled through successful mid-major hires in John Pelphrey and Stan Heath. LSU fired longtime coach John Brady only to see Trent Johnson — hired away from Stanford — bolt after two seasons. In Starkville, Rick Stansbury stepped aside after the 2011-12 season, ending a tenure stretching to 1990, when he arrived as an assistant.

“I don’t know if it’s that the coaches they’ve brought in don’t understand recruiting in the Southeastern Conference or the surroundings at their program to get the players they need,” said Brady, who’s now at Arkansas State.

On half of the SEC’s campuses, the head coaching job has turned over in the past three seasons, and the instability that comes with rebuilding only accentuated the conference’s other issue: poor scheduling dragging down critical power ratings.

Since 2009, the average Ratings Percentage Index has slumped among teams in the middle of the SEC standings. Half of its original 12 members saw their average rating fall below No. 100, including Auburn’s woeful average of 182.

LSU wasn’t immune. The Tigers’ five-year RPI average was 71.4 after the 2009 season, according to RealtimeRPI.com. Factoring in this year’s No. 36 rating, LSU tumbled roughly 60 spots to an average rating of 131.6.

The root cause is scheduling. Last season, five schools played nonconference schools ranging between slots No. 302 and 344 in the advanced statistical ratings compiled by analyst Ken Pomeroy: Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.

So a bad loss, such as the Bulldogs’ defeat to Alabama A&M (No. 337), becomes a brick that weighs down the entire league.

Two years ago, Tennessee was left out of the 68-team field after going 19-15 overall and notching 10 conference victories. The year before, Alabama famously missed the cut despite winning the SEC West with a 12-4 conference record — a No. 296 nonconference strength of schedule impossible to overlook.

The habit wasn’t new. Bracket gurus such as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi have panned the tendency of SEC programs to “schedule themselves out of tournament consideration before even tipping off.”

“To me, that never made any sense,” Lunardi said. “If you’re a school where people didn’t necessarily care as much about basketball to begin with, you could get away with a loss or two. I would view that as an asset in a perverse, backward way.”

In May, schools that can’t decide whether to move to a nine-game conference football slate saw their athletic directors unanimously approve submitting their nonconference slates to the SEC office for review. Each also got a 20-page dossier from consultant Greg Shaheen, the former head of the NCAA tournament, nitpicking the program.

The late installation of the review process blunted its impact this season. Schools were already locked into contracts for home-and-home series or committed to play in in-season tournaments. If anything, the feedback this season amounted to a trial run.

“The biggest thing this first year is trying to understand each other and what are their expectations,” said Eddie Nunez, an associate athletic director for LSU who helps handle basketball scheduling. “Every school is different.”

So far, LSU, which Pomeroy rated as having a No. 234 nonconference schedule, is an optimal case study.

The Tigers scheduled a season opener at Atlantic 10 Conference contender Massachusetts, currently No. 2 in CBS analyst Jerry Palm’s simulated ratings. At Thanksgiving, they took part in the Old Spice Classic, where they notched victories against Saint Joseph’s (No. 78) and Butler (No. 51) to go with a seven-point loss to Memphis (No. 18). Two weeks ago, LSU routed UAB (No. 101) by 23 points.

LSU is 3-2 against the RPI top 100 and has the nation’s No. 58 toughest schedule. All metrics point to ending a four-year hiatus from March Madness.

“They are a year ahead of schedule, to be inside the bubble now as opposed to a year from now,” Lunardi said. “They’re pretty talented, and they had a decent nonconference (performance). If I had to bet, I’d say about 60-40 that they make it.”

LSU also managed to balance its schedule with requisite games against four in-state schools and hosting Rhode Island, although that yielded a loss Saturday. Nunez said any template factors those matchups in, along with trying to find an in-season tournament and “one more BCS-level opponent.”

“There’s a balance,” Nunez said. “It’s trying to figure out who gives us the opportunity. We look at some of those schools in the ACC and the Big 12 because our fans will tie into those regionally.”

Early data suggests LSU isn’t alone.

Right now, the SEC has four teams — Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and LSU — in Palm’s top 25. Tennessee (No. 59), Ole Miss (No. 63) and Arkansas (No. 68) merit early talk of being on the NCAA tournament bubble.

On Thursday, Lunardi slotted six teams in his projected bracket and said the conference doesn’t deserve the same slights it has been subjected to in recent years.

“You can make an argument that, among the so-called power conferences, the SEC is the biggest overachiever,” he said. “That’s more than we would have forecast at the beginning of the year. It’s in a good position heading into league play.”

There’s enough evidence for Whitworth to pass along a tip.

“If you look at SEC basketball as a stock,” he said, “now is a great time to buy.”