How to fix Sun Belt men’s basketball?

Georgia State was upset by Louisiana-Lafayette in the finals of the Sun Belt men's basketball tournament last year. (Crystal LoGiudice, USA TODAY Sports)

Georgia State was upset by Louisiana-Lafayette in the finals of the Sun Belt men’s basketball tournament last year. (Crystal LoGiudice, USA TODAY Sports)

Men’s basketball in the Sun Belt conference needs to improve, commissioner Karl Benson agrees.

The won-loss record of its teams and their corresponding RPIs show that it’s going to be another year of getting just one bid to the NCAA tournament, a series of annual isolation broken just once since 2009.

The athletic directors of the 11 basketball teams in the league met in Dallas in January and have since also had a conference call to discuss how the league can improve.

“Our athletic directors have had a wake-up call in terms of the state of where Sun Belt men’s basketball is,” Benson said.

Among of the reasons they are worried:

Teams in the Sun Belt have an overall record of 108-101 through Tuesday. Here’s the scary part: 21 of those 108 wins have come against non-Division I opponents.

“Wow,” Georgia State Ron Hunter coach said last week.

Take those out and that record is horrible.

It gets worse.

Georgia State, Hunter’s team, has the highest RPI of the Sun Belt teams at 111, according to ESPN’s rankings on Wednesday. The lowest is Troy at 324. The Trojans are one of three Sun Belt teams in the 300s (out of a total of 345) of the rankings. That’s not the type of literal final four leagues want to be associated with.

Teams generally need to be no higher than 50 to have legitimate hope of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

From 2009-14, the league has had one team receive an at-large bid. That team, Middle Tennessee, is no longer in the Sun Belt.

That’s why sending just one team to the NCAA tournament will once again be norm.

In its history, the Sun Belt has had placed two teams (champion and at-large) in the tournament 10 times, three teams once and four teams once. It’s been 28 years when in 1986 Old Dominion, Alabama-Birmingham and Western Kentucky all made it that more than two teams from the Sun Belt has participated in the NCAA tournament.

Other teams in the Sun Belt could point another finger at Georgia State for blowing the league’s best chance of possibly receiving an at-large bid this year. The Panthers, predicted before the first game to be a team to watch in the NCAA tournament and therefore the most likely to earn an at-large berth, dropped games to Iowa State, Colorado State and Old Dominion. The Panthers came out of that and started conference play with an RPI in the 50s, which would have put them on the bubble for an at-large berth. However, the Panthers then lost any remaining chance it may have had at getting an at-large berth with three conference losses.

So, should Georgia State win the Sun Belt tournament, it will go to the NCAA tournament. If it doesn’t, it won’t.

Either way, the conference tournament winner will be the Sun Belt’s only rep.

Why is putting more team into the NCAA tournament important?

It’s important because more appearances in the tournament equal more revenue for the conferences to distribute to its members.

A win in the 2013 tournament was valued at between $1.5 million and almost $2 million. The payout is calculated over a six-year period in which units (appearances) are totaled.

From Forbes last year:

“Conferences get a tournament unit (payout) for every non-championship game played by a conference member in those six tourneys. A tournament unit is projected to be worth $250,106 this year, up 1.9% from last year’s $245,500 unit value. So if teams from the Atlantic 10 played a combined 35 tournament games over those six years, then the conference would receive $8.75 million in April.”

Benson isn’t sure the more-is-better approach is correct.

“If I had my druthers, I would rather have one team with a single-digit seed that has a chance to win a first round game and advance than two No. 14 seeds that are one and out,” Benson said.

Not only would that mean more money for the conference because the unit calculation would include three games, reaching the Sweet 16 provides more impact for the conference’s brand.

How can the Sun Belt fix its basketball problem?

It starts by winning non-conference games against quality opponents. Games against non-Division I opponents don’t count in the RPI formula used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. So, defeating a team with a RPI in the 250s is worth more than playing a Tennessee Temple, which was the only non-Division I team Georgia State played this season.

The league is discussing limiting the number of games each of its teams can play against a non-Division I opponent. Benson said the maximum hasn’t been decided, but it won’t exceed three. He expects an agreement to be reached before schools begin scheduling for the 2015-16 season.

“In terms of RPI, our better teams need to have a balanced non-conference schedule that includes teams in the top 50, top 100 and top 150,” Benson said.

Finding non-conference opponents to replace those minnows is the problem.

Hunter said trying to find teams to play this season was the most difficult challenge he’s faced since being hired at Georgia State. No one wanted to play the Panthers, who went 17-1 in the league last year. Hunter eventually found Wisconsin-Green Bay in a home-and-home arrangement and Southern Miss, a team Georgia State has played many times in the past.

“Understand the difficulty and it’s been an age-old issue,” Benson said. “It just didn’t happen last year or year before. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult.”

A possible solution to finding quality opponents may require paying them to come and play.

Benson, who wants the league to improve in basketball, said there is no mechanism in place for the league to help his teams pay for those guarantee games.

Hypothetically, the league’s members could agree to divert some of the payout the league receives from the college football playoff into a slush fund to pay for games. Benson said he would prefer the schools receive their normal payout and spend it as they need for the games.

Either way, paying for games could help scheduling.

What would help recruiting, the lifeblood of programs? Better facilities would theoretically  lead to signing better players which would theoretically mean an increased chance of winning non-conference games.

“The conference as a whole has to put more resources into basketball,” Hunter said. “There’s no question it’s a football conference. Everything is heavily on the football side. You have to get to the point where basketball means a lot more to the conference.”

Benson does not disagree with this.

Other teams in the Sun Belt could again point a finger right (but not exclusively) at Georgia State when it comes to resources.

The Sports Arena, originally a student rec center, pales to the arenas used by a few other Sun Belt teams. The Sports Arena has new locker rooms. There is talk about renovating the Arena, but those are just drawings at this point. It should also be pointed out that a new arena doesn’t automatically provide a competitive team, as any Georgia Tech fan knows.

Lastly, there’s the composition of the conference. An 11-team league makes for unwieldy scheduling, which is one of the reasons each team has 20 conference games this year.

When Georgia State agrees to join the Sun Belt in 2012, it appeared there were going to be 12 teams, divided into two divisions. Each team would have a travel partner. That would mean Georgia State would go on the road to Troy for a game on Thursday, bus to South Alabama for an afternoon game on Saturday and be back home by Sunday.

Now, Georgia State may fly to Appalachian State for a game on Saturday, fly to Arkansas State for another game on Monday and be back on Tuesday.

The travel wears out the visiting teams and reduces the likelihood of winning. When a conference like the Sun Belt goes into a season knowing that it may only  have two teams with a gambler’s chance at making the NCAA tournament, having travel reduce the possibility of winning on the road, and therefore negatively impacting the RPI after a loss, can be difficult.

Adding a 12th team would solve that travel-related issue. Benson wouldn’t comment on the potential of adding another team.

So, the Sun Belt will have to resign itself to one team making the NCAA tournament. But that doesn’t mean that can’t change sooner rather than going through another five years of watching other mid-tier conferences reap the benefits of one quality team making a deep run, or more than one team receiving an invitation.

“Our athletic directors acknowledge that improvement needs to be made and I am optimistic that changes will be made to allow it to happen,” Benson said. “But it will take more resources at a time new revenues are very difficult to come by.”

Sun Belt vs. others

How does the Sun Belt compare to other conferences that are at, or near (slightly higher or lower), its perceived level:

2014: The Mountain West had two go.

2013: The Mountain West had five, Missouri Valley and West Coast two.

2012: The Mountain West had four, West Coast three and Conference USA, Missouri Valley and MAAC had two.

2011: The Mountain West had three and Conference USA two.

2010: The Mountain West had four, WAC and West Coast two.

2009: The Horizon and Mountain West had two.

2008: And the West Coast had three, Sun Belt and Mountain West had two.


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