Last year, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive made several pointed comments regarding the quality of men's basketball being played by much of the conference. Specifically, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the level of out-of-conference scheduling being done by the schools not named Florida or Kentucky. To solve that problem, Slive required all conference members to submit their non-conference schedule for league approval and hired former NCAA Tournament executive Greg Shaheen to help advise schools on picking opponents that will help their RPI.
Putting together a competitive November/December schedule is important for establishing league credibility and putting the conference in position to earn more bids to the NCAA Tournament. Winning a lot of conference games - as Georgia did last year - doesn't mean anything if none of those wins come against good teams. Including the SEC Tournament, Georgia went 13-7 in conference last year, but 0-4 against Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee losing each game by an average of 19.5 points. There wasn't enough depth in the conference to overcome that kind of performance.
So what are the results of Slive's push for this season? To explore this question I broke down the combined non-conference schedule into 4 categories and compared it to last season.
- Games against Other Power Conferences: ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac 12.
- Games against Preseason AP Top-25 Teams
- Games against Preseason AP 26+ Teams: the "also receiving votes" group
- Games against Preseason Ken Pomeroy Top 25 teams
That's a good cross-section of the SEC's peers. The reason for using the other basketball power conferences should hopefully be obvious. The AP and Ken Pomeroy Top 25 lists cover the elite teams from the other conferences, such as Memphis, Connecticut, and Gonzaga, and using the "also receiving votes" portion of the AP poll increases the number of teams that are considered to be "good" headed into the season.
Here's how the conference stacks up in each category as compared to last year:
The graph speaks for itself - the SEC is playing more teams from the top conferences and the quality of those teams has improved considerably. Keep in mind that the 2015 numbers are actually incomplete - most SEC teams are playing in holiday tournaments that will provide additional games in these categories in future rounds. Obviously we don't know those matchups yet so they aren't included here, but the point is that the schedule is already stronger than last year and it's only going to get better.
As I alluded to in the introduction, Kentucky and Florida always play good schedules and are the primary reason for what success the SEC has had recently in the tournament and against other leagues. Here's how the other 12 teams look from last year to this:
Pretty clear that the other schools have picked up their game. Slive's goal to improve the quality of competition in November and December - and thus improve the quality of wins in January and February - is clearly succeeding. The SEC is going to have lots of opportunities to prove how good it is in basketball. It's now up to the individual members to actually win some of these games and complete the process.