On Thursday, the SEC announced a tweak to its scheduling model for men's basketball: Each SEC team now has three "permanent opponents" which it will play twice annually, and will play its other 12 games by playing at least one game against each of the other 10 teams in the league, and the remaining two games against opponents that "will be scheduled on a rotating basis."
Florida's "permanent opponents" are Georgia, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Here's the full table of "permanent opponents," swiped from Rock M Nation, which also has plenty more good analysis of SEC scheduling.
|Team||Permanent Opponent No. 1||Permanent Opponent No. 2||Permanent Opponent No. 3|
|Mississippi State||Ole Miss||Alabama||South Carolina|
|Mizzou||Arkansas||Ole Miss||Texas A&M|
|Ole Miss||Mississippi State||Mizzou||Auburn|
|South Carolina||Georgia||Tennessee||Mississippi State|
The move should, theoretically, put an end to the flux of the conference's recent scheduling decisions for the sport. Prior to the 2011-12 season, the league eliminated divisions, creating a 12-team league that still played games according to the prior format — teams played home and away games against their previous divisional opponents, and one game against each team from the other division — in 2011-12.
The elimination of divisions was cast both as an attempt to get more teams into the NCAA Tournament by improving strength of schedule, and a remedy for the awkward division-based seeding of the SEC Tournament, which, in 2011, had given the top two West teams byes despite the top four teams in the East all having overall records at least as good as Alabama's 20-10 mark. The Crimson Tide narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament in 2011, going on to lose in the NIT final to Wichita State, but might have been better off playing teams other than the dregs of the SEC West: Four of Alabama's 12 SEC wins were against Auburn and LSU, teams that finished more conference losses than overall wins in 2010-11.
In 2011-12, though, the elimination of divisions failed to improve SEC fortunes. Only four SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament, and though the conference posted the best winning percentage in the Big Dance and accrued many NCAA Tournament units, thanks largely to Kentucky winning the national title and Florida making the Elite Eight, that hit rate of 33 percent of conference teams included in the NCAA Tournament field was the second-lowest among the six "power" leagues (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) that existed at the time. (The Pac-12 sent just two teams to the 2012 NCAA Tournament.)
But that format lasted only one year. Since Missouri and Texas A&M's arrival in the SEC prior to the 2012-13 season, the SEC has filled schools' 18-game conference schedules by having each of the 14 teams play two-game home-and-away series against one permanent rival and four "rotating" opponents, then one game against each of the remaining eight teams. Florida was paired with Kentucky as its "permanent" opponent, and the teams have combined to both play some of the conference's best games since and win the three league titles awarded in that span.
The Gators' rotating opponents have been more of a mixed bag. Florida has met its new "permanent opponents" Georgia and Vanderbilt twice in just one of three years under the new format — Georgia in 2012-13, Vanderbilt in 2014-15. And the Gators have missed on some of the conference's more compelling foes as a result: Florida got just one regular-season game against Mississippi in each of the two years Marshall Henderson terrorized the league with the Rebels, for example.
The flip side of Florida's rotating opponents has also hurt the SEC. Georgia finished third in the conference in 2013-14, as Florida stormed through the first fully unbeaten season in the modern era of the SEC, but only met the Gators once; Tennessee played Florida twice. The Vols made the NCAA Tournament, while the Bulldogs did not. And in 2012-13, Florida again won the league in dominant fashion, taking every SEC win it earned by a double-digit margin, but also handed lowly Mississippi State two beatdowns, while not playing at third-place finisher Alabama, which again failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
It benefits a basketball league for its powers — arguably just Florida and Kentucky in the SEC — to give upstart teams as many games as possible, for the purposes of possibly securing pelts that will be waved around by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee come March. It benefits the powers, of course, to play more bad teams — but this isn't football, where one loss by the best team in the league is likely to wreck a season.
And undefeated conference campaigns like Florida's in 2013-14 and Kentucky's in 2011-12 and 2014-15 are actually more cometary than common; recency bias should not govern decision-making, even if it can influence it. It's more likely that seasons will play out like they did in 2012-13, when Florida won the league with a 14-4 record and six other schools won 10 or more conference games, than as in the other three seasons since the elimination of divisions, which have seen undefeated teams joined by no more than five other programs with 10 or more SEC wins.
Plus, there's really only so much a conference can do for its teams through scheduling of conference games. History has taught us time and again that rigorous but rational nonconference scheduling is one of the keys to inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. What the conference can do is position teams to benefit from playing other teams that schedule well.
So Florida getting Georgia is a big win for Georgia and the SEC, if slightly less so for the Gators, because the Bulldogs are now guaranteed two conference games against what should perennially be one of the league's better teams, and a program that has the cachet to schedule good programs in non-conference play. The same is true for Vanderbilt, though Florida drawing the lone SEC program left with a coach who has been in the league for more than a decade is a fine pull for the Gators.
And Kentucky is, obviously, the gold standard for any SEC team: There's no greater challenge available in the SEC than annual home and away meetings with the Wildcats, the most powerful program in college basketball, but challenges come with rewards — and Florida's claimed plenty of those. Tennessee and Vanderbilt should both be thrilled to see Kentucky twice a year, even if it means more routs at Rupp are on the way.
Plus, what else could the SEC have done for the Gators? The only other logical "permanent" foe for Florida would have been Tennessee, which has arguably forged a better basketball rivalry with the Gators than either Georgia or Vanderbilt. But the Vols' program has been one of turmoil, prone to peaks and valleys, and they have employed five head coaches since 2010-11, making just one Sweet Sixteen trip since Bruce Pearl's firing. Rick Barnes could be excellent on Rocky Top — or he could struggle, as he did in his last several seasons at Texas. The volatility (no pun intended) of Tennessee makes Georgia and Vanderbilt surer bets for Florida, to my eye.
This was the SEC finally putting its basketball scheduling into a semblance of order, and the league seems to have created something good out of its chaos, for both Florida and the rest of the conference.
But, hey, that's just my opinion. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe you can correct me in the comments?