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November 14, 2011
Changing Landscape
Ramifications of Missouri's Move to the SEC

by Bradford Doolittle

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Missouri's move to the Southeastern Conference is all about football. That's not exactly going out on a limb, but make no mistake about it. Conference jumping did not begin because schools were desperate to attach themselves to a circuit with a better basketball RPI. The hulking heaps of television revenue generated by college football, not to mention the methods by which said bounty is dispersed, are at the root of recent seismic shifts on the collegiate landscape, shifts that we've followed with a mix of excitement, fear, apprehension and annoyance.

There's been a lot of talk--maybe too much talk--about how Missouri will fare on the gridirons of the rugged SEC. The consensus is patently absurd: The Tigers will be lucky to win two games per season. Their upside is as the new Vanderbilt. Hopes of ever reaching a BCS bowl game have been permanently extinguished.

Come on, now. The SEC is a great football league, but it's not like Mizzou is joining the NFC East. No one knows if Mizzou's recruiting will be helped or hurt by the move. No one knows how its style of play will work against these vaunted fast defenses we hear so much about. No one knows. There is little doubt in my mind that any of Missouri's squads from the last five years, including this one, would be competitive in the SEC East, with a legit shot of winning its way into the conference title game. Don't agree? Fine. I don't believe you either. We'll find out.

Of course, this is a basketball Web site and there has been precious little written about the hoops ramifications of not only Missouri joining Big 12-mate Texas A&M's in the SEC, but also West Virginia and TCU taking up the vacated spots in the ever-teetering Big 12. So we'll leave aside the question of whether Missouri should have moved and concentrate on what we might expect now that it has.

Any longtime reader already knows this, but in the interest of transparency, I'll state it again: I attended the University of Missouri and have retained more than a little rooting interest in the success of the school's athletic programs. That said, let's start with the obvious questions. What has been the relative basketball strengths of the Big 12 and the SEC? How will the changing configurations affect the potency of these leagues?

Here's a chart of the top 10 conferences in Division I, based on the last five years' worth of KenPom league ratings. The ratings have been weighted so that recent performance counts for more, but as an arbitrary choice, the effect has been purposely kept gentle.

Conference        wAVG  |  2011   2010   2009   2008   2007
-----------------------------------------------------------
Atlantic Coast   .8753  | .8245  .9007  .8722  .8994  .8978
Big Ten          .8692  | .8975  .8511  .8520  .8737  .8667
Big 12           .8674  | .8294  .8980  .8660  .9140  .8325
Big East         .8650  | .8643  .8600  .8691  .8817  .8487
Pac 12/Pac 10    .8321  | .7776  .7813  .8739  .9087  .8538
Southeastern     .8190  | .7608  .8370  .7840  .8621  .8857
Mountain West    .7294  | .7578  .7003  .7447  .7033  .7356
Missouri Valley  .6767  | .5799  .6911  .6176  .7543  .8046
Atlantic 10      .6498  | .5940  .7114  .6423  .7423  .5526
Conference USA   .6492  | .6307  .6611  .6638  .6949  .5894

From top to bottom, the SEC has been clearly a notch below the big boys in Division I men's basketball. The ACC, Big 10, Big 12 and Big East have taken their turns atop the heap but in terms of regular season success, there is little to separate them over the last half-decade. The Pac 10 (now Pac 12) lags behind, but rates ahead the SEC. All are slotted well ahead of the Mountain West, the highest-rated of the high mid-majors.

These things are cyclical. So much depends on the movement of coaches and the impetuous decisions of 17-year-old McDonald's All-Americans. There seems to be a growing separation between the big four and everybody else. Even with the SEC growing stronger at the top last season, the overall gap from the elite seems to have widened. Till now, anyway.

Using a similar weighted-average approach yields the following aggregate standings for the last five years of SEC basketball, with Missouri and Texas A&M added into the mix:

Team         wAVG
Texas A&M   .9062
Florida     .9057
Missouri    .9039
Kentucky    .8866
Tennessee   .8736
Vanderbilt  .8677
Alabama     .8408
Mississippi .8163
Miss. State .8152
S. Carolina .7463
Arkansas    .7397
Georgia     .7373
Auburn      .6732
LSU         .6318

Let's use this year's projected Pomeroy numbers as a proxy for conference strength since they already have some of the team shifting accounted for, plus they are also to an extent an expression of the relative success for each program over the last three years. There are more moves coming down the pike, most notably Syracuse and Pittsburgh moving to the ACC in a couple of years. To account for those, I've included all conference shifts we know about at the moment. This includes the landscape-altering move of North Dakota from the Great West to the Summit, but does not Nebraska-Omaha's move into the same circuit as the Mavericks have up till now competed at the Division II level. I think we can live with that.

With that in mind, let's look at our ranking of re-configured basketball conferences:

              ---- BEFORE ----  ---- AFTER ----
CONF            TM    AVG  RNK  TM     AVG  RNK
Big 10          12  .8086 ( 1) | 12  .8086 ( 1)
ACC             12  .7557 ( 4) | 14  .7782 ( 2)
Big East        16  .7807 ( 2) | 13  .7553 ( 3)
SEC             12  .7308 ( 5) | 14  .7489 ( 4)
Big 12          10  .7718 ( 3) | 10  .7340 ( 5)
Pac 12          12  .7073 ( 6) | 12  .7073 ( 6)
Missouri Valley 10  .6074 ( 7) | 10  .6074 ( 7)
West Coast       9  .6026 ( 8) |  9  .6026 ( 8)
Mountain West    8  .5887 ( 9) |  9  .5944 ( 9)
Conference USA  12  .5880 (10) | 12  .5880 (10)
------------------------------------------------
CAA             12  .5471 (11) | 12  .5471 (11)
Horizon         10  .5180 (13) | 10  .5180 (12)
MAC             12  .4832 (14) | 12  .4832 (13)
Ivy League       8  .4808 (15) |  8  .4808 (14)
WAC              8  .5229 (12) | 10  .4589 (15)
Summit          10  .4540 (16) |  8  .4526 (16)
MAAC            10  .4498 (17) | 10  .4498 (17)
Big West         9  .4031 (18) | 10  .4125 (18)
Atlantic Sun    10  .3933 (19) | 10  .3933 (19)
Southern        12  .3912 (20) | 12  .3912 (20)
------------------------------------------------
Patriot          8  .3824 (21) |  8  .3824 (21)
Ohio Valley     11  .3824 (22) | 11  .3824 (22)
Northeast       12  .3711 (23) | 12  .3711 (23)
Big South       11  .3616 (25) | 11  .3616 (24)
Big Sky          9  .3664 (24) | 11  .3466 (25)
American East    9  .3401 (27) |  9  .3401 (26)
Sun Belt        12  .3422 (26) | 11  .3254 (27)
Southland       12  .3039 (28) | 10  .3168 (28)
MEAC            13  .2611 (29) | 13  .2611 (29)
Independent      4  .2180 (30) |  3  .1645 (30)
------------------------------------------------
Great West       6  .1748 (31) |  5  .1607 (31)
SWAC            10  .1446 (32) | 10  .1446 (32)

I used a simple average of the teams to arrive at these figures. That's not precisely how Pomeroy does it, so the numbers don't quite correspond to the initial chart. We're focusing on the relative differences between conferences.

In College Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, John Ezekowitz lays out a convincing case that Pomeroy's math undersells this year's SEC. There is certainly elite-level talent at Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida. Alabama is pretty loaded and Mississippi State seems to have a high ceiling. Mike Anderson comes into Arkansas with a proven system and John Pelphrey's vaunted recruiting class still in hand. However, the problem with the SEC in recent years hasn't be the top of the league. It's been the middle and the bottom, and this is where Mizzou and Texas A&M can help.

A stronger middle could have lifted Alabama into last year's NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Tide won 21 games and easily won the SEC West with 12-4 record. Unfortunately, the division was so bad that 'Bama's bubble burst even though they finished with the second-best league record in a BCS conference. Turns out that beating up on Auburn and LSU didn't count for much. Tennessee, playing in the stronger East, earned the SEC's fifth seed despite going 9-9 in conference play. The SEC has wisely dispatched with divisions starting this season, though an unbalanced schedule has remained. We don't know how much the schedule will be altered with the two new teams, but it seems likely that the additions should allow the SEC to get five or six bids most seasons. That's not something the league has been able to take for granted of late:

RECENT NCAA TOURNAMENT SEEDS
Team        2011    2010    2009    2008    2007
Florida        2      10      --      --       8
Kentucky       4       1      --      11      --
Tennessee      9       6       9       2      --
Vanderbilt     5       4      --       4      --
Alabama       --      --      --      --       1
Mississippi   --      --      --      --      --
Miss. St.     --      --      13       8      12
S. Carolina   --      --      --      --      --
Arkansas      --      --      --       9       5
Georgia       10      --      --      14      --
Auburn        --      --      --      --       6
Louisiana St. --      --       8      --      --
TOTAL          5       4       3       6       5
------------------------------------------------
Team        2011    2010    2009    2008    2007
Kansas         1       1       3       1       1
Texas          4       8       7       2       4
Kansas St.     5       2      --      11      --
Texas A&M      7       5       9       9       3
Missouri      11      10       3      --      --
Baylor        --       3      --      11      --
Oklahoma St.  --       7       8      --      --
Nebraska      --      --      --      --      --
Oklahoma      --      --       2       6      --
Texas Tech    --      --      --      --      10
Iowa St.      --      --      --      --      --
Colorado      --      --      --      --      --
TOTAL          5       7       6       6       4

So the SEC is growing stronger while at the same time another BCS conference grows weaker. From a basketball perspective, there seems to be no downside to the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference. For the Big 12, the opposite is true. It's all downside. Also, the move appears to at the very least offer the status quo for Missouri and Texas A&M's postseason prospects. Their presence alone should guard against them ending up in a conference with a sagging long-term RPI.

What about the big stage? Getting into the tournament is one thing; advancing deep into it is another. Neither the Tigers nor the Aggies have ever advanced to the Final Four. Missouri has made it as far as the Elite Eight on three occasions but lost each time, most recently to UConn in the 2009 West Regional finals. It seems almost incredible (especially to Mizzou fans) that the Tigers have never made the Final Four, not even during Norm Stewart's salad days in the eighties when the likes of Steve Stipanovich, Jon Sunvold, Derrick Chievous, Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler graced the hardwood in Columbia. Only BYU (26) has had more NCAA Tournament appearances without winning a region. A little further down the list, tied for 12th, is Texas A&M, which has come up empty in 11 all-time tourney bids and never advanced beyond the Sweet 16.

Thanks to Florida and Kentucky, the SEC has fared well in terms of winning big in the tournament over the last half-decade or so.

Team        SDS  POW  S16   E8   FF   CH   TT
Florida       3    1    2    2    1    1    1
Kentucky      3    2    2    2    1   --   --
Tennessee     4    1    3    1   --   --   --
Vanderbilt    3    2    1   --   --   --   --
Alabama       1    1   --   --   --   --   --
Mississippi   0    0   --   --   --   --   --
Miss. St.     3    0   --   --   --   --   --
S. Carolina   0    0   --   --   --   --   --
Arkansas      2    0   --   --   --   --   --
Georgia       2    0   --   --   --   --   --
Auburn        1    0   --   --   --   --   --
Louisiana St. 1    0   --   --   --   --   --
TOTALS       23    7    8    5    2    1    1
---------------------------------------------
Team        SDS  POW  S16   E8   FF   CH   TT
Kansas        5    5    4    3    1    1    1
Texas         5    3    1    1   --   --   --
Kansas St.    3    1    1    1   --   --   --
Texas A&M     5    1    1   --   --   --   --
Missouri      3    1    1    1   --   --   --
Baylor        2    1    1    1   --   --   --
Oklahoma St.  2    0   --   --   --   --   --
Nebraska      0    0   --   --   --   --   --
Oklahoma      2    1    1    1   --   --   --
Texas Tech    1    0   --   --   --   --   --
Iowa St.      0    0   --   --   --   --   --
Colorado      0    0   --   --   --   --   --
TOTALS       28   13   10    8    1    1    1

In the old configuration, the Big 12 has had more total tournament bids (28-23) and more power seeds (13-7) over the last five years. Nevertheless, the league has had only two more Sweet 16 showings, the SEC has had one more Final Four entrant and the leagues are even when it comes to title-game appearances and national titles. In the latter category, the pendulum swings the SEC's way if we were to go back one more season to capture the first of Florida's back-to-back titles. Thus are the vagaries of arbitrary end points.

In any event, when you're talking about consistently winning big in the tournament, it always comes back to the elite programs. So in terms of intraconference competition, Missouri and Texas A&M swap Kansas for Kentucky and, arguably, Texas for Florida. They should be in the pack right behind those powers on a year-in, year-out basis. Whether or not either school can break its Final Four drought really has little to do with conference affiliation. However, just as overall conference RPIs should increase for the SEC with the new members, the chances for all schools in the conference to land those coveted power seeds also increase.

The bottom line is that a cold, rational discussion of relative conference strengths says that the SEC has caught and passed the Big 12 as a basketball conference and re-entered the conversation as one of the top hoops circuits in the land. Of course the concept of "conference" should and usually does include factors at least as important as the aggregate strength of its athletic members. We're getting a little wordy here, so let's just touch upon a few of these areas.

ACADEMICS: Missouri and Texas A&M are both members of the AAU, a coveted distinction. Here's the AAU spiel:

"AAU member universities are on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to the nation's economy, security, and well-being. The 59 AAU universities in the United States award more than one-half of all U.S. doctoral degrees and 55 percent of those in the sciences and engineering."

The new schools double the SEC's AAU membership. Florida and Vanderbilt were the only existing member schools. The Big 12 has now lost Mizzou, A&M, Colorado and Nebraska in the last year--all AAU schools, leaving the league with just three. In case you're wondering, all 13 Big Ten schools* 12 of 13 Big Ten schools are in the AAU. That's the league myself and many, many Missouri fans longed for the Tigers to join. Alas.

* - In case you didn't already know this, the University of Chicago is a member of the Big Ten, though it no longer competes in athletics. Also, as a commenter notes, Nebraska was jettisoned from the AAU this year. Turns out the Big 12 would have been losing that feather in its cap anyway.

CULTURE: I can't speak to what is for me the alien culture of Texas, but I'm still wrapping my head around the notion of Missouri as an SEC school. I have spent a limited amount of time in the south, mostly in the Memphis and New Orleans areas. The southern part of Missouri, roughly the part that is south of I-44, is a cultural fit. However, the counties that comprise the Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia areas account for roughly 2/3 of the population of the state of Missouri. Alumni from those towns also account for a big chunk of the private donations to the school's athletic programs. Having lived in all three areas, I can assure you that none of those three communities are exactly bursting with southern culture. How that translates to the Mizzou athletic programs is uncertain. I have a feeling that the high-profile nature of SEC football will trump any of cultural awkwardness. But as for the other sports ... I'm not so sure, and that includes men's basketball.

RIVALRIES: Obviously there are none. Missouri and Texas A&M have nothing like a real rivalry with each other. Neither has much basketball history with any of the existing SEC schools. With Anderson taking over in Arkansas and Fayetteville's geographic proximity to Columbia, the Tigers-Razorbacks rivalry should gain traction pretty quickly. But there will probably never be anything to match Mizzou's rivalries with Kansas, Kansas State and even Iowa State. It's just not going to happen. Again, that could translate to waning interest at the box office, which could lead to problems in ...

RECRUITING: Again, I'm focusing on Missouri here, but it's revealing to look at the composition of Missouri's rosters from the last five years. The Tigers have had as many players who hail from ACC/SEC territory (8) as they have landed from within their own state borders. Also, three of the five Division I transfers over that span who have landed in Columbia have also come from the southeast. Part of Missouri athletic director Mike Alden's justification for hiring the underwhelming Frank Haith last spring was the coach's background recruiting Big 12 states back in his days as a Rick Barnes assistant in Texas. In fact, the Tigers have relied very little on those states for players over the last few years. And two of the Texans that have come on board hardly count--Matt and Phil Pressey both came to Columbia because of Anderson's ties with their father. (Both stayed despite Anderson's departure.) Haith announced his first five-man recruiting class last week. Three of the players hail from the Big East's imprint; one is from an SEC state and the other is from the St. Louis area. Right now, it's tough to say that basketball recruiting will be impacted one way or another by the shift in conferences. At the very least, it doesn't promise to be nearly as big of a factor as it may turn out to be in football.

In a vacuum, Missouri and Texas A&M's move to the SEC seems to be a real boost for the conference and, when it comes to basketball, is really neither here nor there for the schools. Texas A&M will probably miss its in-state rivalries in hoops, but will quickly forge rivalries with Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi and Mississippi State. There isn't a long basketball tradition that is being uprooted in College Station and that should help Mark Turgeon maintain his program's status quo Bill Kennedy maintain the status quo of the program that Mark Turgeon built.

Haith has a bigger task in front of him in Columbia. The loss of traditional Big Eight/Big 12 rivalries could erode the interest of a fan base that has always been a little fickle when it comes to basketball. If a home schedule that includes Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky as the featured conference games doesn't keep the turnstiles spinning, it could affect Haith's ability to attract recruits. A lot may depend on Haith's ability to keep Missouri part of the national conversation this season, its last in familiar territory. It would help if come next season, the Tigers are an opponent that its new conference brethren circle on their calendars.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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