January 3, 2010 12:05:00 AM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The numbers will mean a little more to Southeastern Conference women''s basketball coaches this season.
Today, all 12 teams will play the first games in their 16-game SEC schedules. This is the first season the SEC, which started women''s basketball play in the 1982-83 season, will feature a 16-game schedule.
The decision evoked mixed feelings from SEC coaches last year when they were asked about it at the league''s annual media days gathering in Birmingham, Ala.
"I like it," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "I can''t think of anything better to go to. I think it''s an attempt to keep the competitive playing field as level as you can keep it. It''s not about who you like to cover or me or what I would like as a coach. It is about every one of those teams and players having a reasonably equal chance year in and year out to win a conference championship. I said year in and year out because we have been a part of it on a number of occasions that you''re going to have to play two contenders."
There was talk before the start of the 2009-10 season that the SEC would go to a two-division format for its women''s basketball teams, just like the one the league uses for its men''s teams.
But the league opted to stay with the one-division format it has had since the 1985-86 season. The SEC used an East-West format for its first three seasons, and the 10 member schools played eight-game schedules.
The SEC women''s teams played nine conference games from 1985-86 to 1991-92, when the number of games increased to 11 with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina to the league.
From there, the SEC pushed the number of women''s conference games to 12 for one season (1996-97) before settling on 14, which has been in effect from 1997-98 until last season.
Mississippi State will keep natural rivals like the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama and will play those teams twice each season. The Lady Bulldogs also will play Auburn, Florida, and Vanderbilt twice this season.
The schedule works out in MSU''s favor this season in that it plays host to Georgia and Tennessee, two teams picked to finish in the top four in the league and ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. It will travel to LSU on Feb. 28 to wrap up the SEC schedule.
Landers said it was important to keep some of the rivalries, like Vanderbilt and Tennessee, Florida and Georgia, and MSU and Ole Miss, but it said others, like Kentucky and South Carolina or Arkansas and LSU, weren''t "sacred."
He doesn''t feel the addition of two SEC games will hurt the chances of teams trying to make the NCAA tournament.
"I think the better teams are going to get in," Landers said. "You can go back to when we played divisions. You might have had three from the East and one from the West. The better teams are going to get in regardless of what format you play. I think the argument would come from a fourth in one division getting in and a second or third from another not getting in."
Arkansas coach Tom Collen, whose team plays host to Florida at 2 p.m. today, isn''t sure if moving to a 16-game SEC schedule will help everyone. He argues the SEC could benefit greater if its teams went 24-0 against non-conference opponents as opposed to the 12-12 record the league will get by playing two more league games.
"I would have preferred divisions," said Collen, who also likes the idea of having a chance to win a division title. "I have never been a big advocate of going from 12 games to 14 games and then from 14 to 16. I think you run the risk of not being able to get as many teams into the NCAA tournament when you do that."
Collen admitted the balance of power between teams that would be in an East Division (Tennessee, Georgia, Vanderbilt) is different from the traditional powers that would be in a West Division (LSU, Auburn).
He believes the 16-game schedule will affect how SEC teams build schedules in the years to come, in part because of numbers like the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS). The NCAA tournament selection committee uses both figures to help it pick the at-large schools for the 64-team NCAA tournament field.
"Back when the league was getting seven or eight teams into the NCAA tournament on a regular basis, we played 11 or 12 league games," Collen said. "I think back then there was an opportunity for more teams to get to 20 or 21 or 22 wins and finish in eighth place and still look like a better team, and maybe, in fact, be a better team.
"I think the NCAA tournament selection committee has it down to such a science that winning 20 games is not where you have to be to get into the NCAA tournament. It is harder to get more teams because you play more conference games and you beat each other up. There is so much more emphasis on non-conference scheduling and RPI that I think that is a much bigger factor than what is used to be."
Whether you''re for or against the change in the number of SEC games, one thing is certain: The SEC will feature some of the nation''s best women''s college basketball this season.
"It is going to be a tough league," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "There are going to be a lot of teams trying to get those top four spots (to earn first-round byes for the SEC tournament)."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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