University of Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant, left out in the cold by the NCAA Tournament selection committee a year ago, has already taken steps to prevent a recurrence.
UA has not officially released its men's basketball schedule for the 2011-12 season yet, but the names that have trickled out in various other places show that the Crimson Tide is serious about adding big-conference muscle to its non-league slate. UA will appear in a November tournament in Puerto Rico that will also include Purdue, Maryland, Temple, Colorado and, in a possible rematch of last March's NIT final, Wichita State. The Crimson Tide will host Georgetown in the SEC-Big East challenge.
If that isn't enough beef, UA will play away from home against Dayton (a very difficult stop in addition to being Grant's alma mater), Kansas State (in Kansas City) and Georgia Tech (in Phillips Arena, tentatively). Oklahoma State will come to Birmingham to face the Crimson Tide.
Grant, speaking on the Southeastern Conference summer basketball teleconference on Monday, said UA would continue to "challenge itself" in non-conference scheduling, even if the league went from 16 conference games to 18 in the future. That decision, coming in the wake of last month's decision to eliminate divisional play in the SEC, will be made later this fall.
"Right now, the plan is to reconvene and discuss our options," Grant said. "I want to hear the opinions of my colleagues. But in terms of (non-conference) scheduling, I think we have to continue to challenge ourselves. As we build our program, we feel like we can compete with the best. If you look at the landscape of college basketball in terms of the post-season, (we) have to put ourselves in a position where we are in a favorable light should we have an opportunity to qualify for post-season play. "If we go to 18 (league games), imbalance of schedule can be the cause of a little frustration on the coaches' parts, but it works itself out. We played an 18-game schedule at VCU and it worked."
While Grant is concerned with enhancing Alabama's position, some league coaches said that the elimination of divisional play would automatically have that effect. "There has been a perception in this league that it has almost been two separate (East and West) leagues," said Auburn coach Tony Barbee. "That hasn't helped. There is no way an Alabama team that finished second in the overall standings … wouldn't have been in if the NCAA had looked at in the (new) format."
Several coaches mentioned a full round-robin of 22 league games as the best way to determine a true SEWC champion, although most echoed Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings in saying "I don't anticipate (a 22-game schedule) as where we end up."
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, the most outspoken critic of changing the previous format, did not modify his stance against abolishing divisions. "Why is it better?," Stansbury said. "If it is so much better, then why is the Big 10 going to divisions? If it is about determining a true champion, you have to play 22 games. I am not saying I would be in favor of that, but that's the only way to do it, if it is about a 'true champion' "I just think it hurts the fans. I think when you get to February, it's better to have more teams competing for a championship."
Most of the coaches agreed that Kentucky would be the league favorite in 2012 regardless of format. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy added that "it's good for the entire league when Kentucky is Kentucky."
Several coaches, including Florida's Billy Donovan and new Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, predicted that Alabama would be one of the league's stronger teams in the upcoming season. Georgia coach Mark Fox made a darkhorse pick, saying that Vanderbilt - which returns all five starters - "is a team that could make the Final Four."
Anderson, returning to the SEC after serving as head coadch at UAB and Arkansas, said the league was poised to regain its past glory. "It's been a league in transition," Anderson said. "You had lot of young coaches and had a lot of turnover. Now I think there is stability and once you get stability, your league really takes off. You look at the guys who were here when I was here before, Rick Stansbury and Billy Donovan. You have John (Calipari) at Kentucky, (Anthony) Grant at Alabama (and) Kevin (Stallings) at Vanderbilt. It is going to be a very good league, and it needs Arkansas to be good. So the challenge for us (at Arkansas) is to become relevant, not only in SEC but also in the nation."