A recent ruling by the Southland Conference presidential board of directors puts a more challenging slant on the University of Central Arkansas' basketball scheduling.
The board, at the SLC's annual spring meeting at Galveston, Texas, approved an advisory council recommendation last week to reduce the number of non NCAA Division I opponents in men's and women's basketball to three in 2010-11 (when UCA should first become eligible for postseason competition) and to two in 2011-2012.
That means that most of those "who's that?" schools that offer cupcake teams and guaranteed wins such as Bacone, Haskell and William Woods will be gone from the UCA schedule. The downside is it puts UCA, and possibly some of its fellow conference members, in a bit of a bind with scheduling winnable nonconference games -- particularly home games.
First, let's look at the ideal behind the decision, which is theoretically a good one. The bottom line is to try to get the Southland Conference tournament champion a higher seed in the NCAA tournament with the automatic bid.
"We're a one-bid league and we know that," said Brad Teague, UCA athletic director.
One reality is the NCAA Selection Committee looks carefully at nonconference scheduling -- and particularly with schools that get some of the last bids. The committee looks harshly on a team for not playing a competitive nonconference schedule and for playing NAIA or Division II teams at home instead of Division I teams on the road. Victories against non-Division I teams are not counted on a team's official D-I record that goes into figuring the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) that is a significant factor in ranking and seeding teams. For example, the UCA's men's 10-19 record last season translated to 6-19 for RPI purposes.
Two things helped move conference officials toward serious evaluation Stephen F. Austin's men had the highest RPI ever for a SLC team two years ago, was upset in the SLC tournament, was rejected for the NCAA field and went to the NIT. SFA recorded the second-highest RPI last season, won the tournament and got a 14 seed in the NCAA, losing decisively, 59-44, to Syracuse from the Big East, the highest RPI league in the country.
Theoretically, administrators of most conference schools maintain that league teams playing fewer non Division I schools might help a team such as SFA to get a higher seed, which could give it a better chance to win a first-round game, improving the league's status on the NCAA ladder.
"The ultimate goal is to get an 11 or 12 seed for the conference champion," Teague said.
The UCA athletic director voted against the proposal, which he said passed 8-3-1.
"I don't think we can get better than a 13 or 14 seed," Teague said. "I think that shows with what happened the last couple of years with a team like SFA that had a good record (24-8) and a high RPI. I think if teams have to play more Division I teams, the teams that we can realistically get games with are better or higher-level Division I teams. I think it could make our records worse if we have to play more teams from major conferences such as the Big 12 and SEC. What might be a 22-4 record might turn into 20-6 against. And losing a couple more games to higher-level Division I teams will hurt RPI and therefore potential seeding, in my opinion."
Other conference officials maintain it's worth the risk and it's time to try something because the status quo isn't working.
Teague also said the new rule could have an effect on UCA financially.
"We have a problem getting home games and teams to agree to a home-and-home series," Teague said. "To get more nonconference Division I opponents who would realistically play us, and play us on a home-and-home arrangement, we might have fewer home games and have to travel.
"Those NAIA teams that we play that are around us for those so-called 'guaranteed-win games,' we can pay about $2,500 for a home game," Teague said. "It would cost more than that if we have to travel very far to play a couple more Division I opponents and it's not easy to find those who will play us and agree to a home-and-home series (either than year or a return game in a future year). Our location on the fringe of the conference helps us to the extent that we have proximity to more FCS (Football Championship Series or formerly Division I-AA) conferences."
Tennessee-Martin and Missouri State are two examples of that.
The bottom line is conference officials pretty much all agree that it is of utmost importance to basketball, both financially and for marketing purposes, to improve its status on the NCAA food chain. One way is for the conference to develop the reputation as a "bracket-buster" league by some upsets over a period of time (Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference, the Mid-America Conference and the Missouri Valley are examples of this). Another is to show the NCAA Selection Committee the league is serious about improving scheduling on a quality level and play only a couple of NAIA or Division II teams a year.
One obvious solution from UCA's standpoint is for Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock agree to play on a regular basis on some kind of home-and-home arrangement.
Don't hold your breath.
UCA officials are already skipping over that and looking for a workable Plan C.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com)