It didn’t take long for another Division I conference to follow the scheduling model that Conference USA unveiled last week.
The Sun Belt announced on Monday that starting in 2019-20, it would revamp its men’s basketball schedule and tournament format in an effort to maximize the league’s postseason bids and improve postseason seeding.
The new format includes splitting the league into divisions for a 20-game conference schedule. Each division will hold six teams, and those teams will play each other both home and away to account for 10 of the 20 games on the schedule. Teams will also play one game each against schools from the other division — three at home and three away.
The divisions are as follows:
EAST: Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, South Alabama, Troy
WEST: Little Rock, Arkansas State, Louisiana, ULM, UT Arlington, Texas State
After each team has completed those 16 games, the conference will be divided into four pods consisting of three teams each (Pod A will be teams 1-3 in the standings, Pod B will be teams 4-6, Pod C will be 7-9, and Pod D will be 10-12). Each school will play the other two in its pod at home and away to round out the 20-game schedule.
The regular season conference champion will be determined by the results of the full 20-game schedule.
As for tournament seeding, teams will be seeded based on results within their pod. So, Pod A teams cannot be seeded worse than third, Pod B teams can’t be worse than sixth, etc. This also means that the regular season champion is not guaranteed the top seed in the conference tournament.
While the Sun Belt is following the same idea as CUSA, there are a few key differences. For starters, each team will already have played home-and-homes with five other opponents. Additionally, the final four games will be additional home-and-homes rather than the round-robin that CUSA installed in its new model.
This means that, theoretically, you might end up with four regular season meetings between some teams. For example: Georgia Southern and Georgia State will play each other twice in the first 16 games of the schedule because they are in the same division. If they are also next to each other in the standings after those 16 games, they will play an additional home-and-home. They could even get a fifth matchup in the conference tournament.
The use of divisions is another key difference. While this makes travel a little easier for teams, the Sun Belt also runs the risk of an unintentional imbalance in the quality of each one. Long-term, this likely won’t make a big difference, however, and forcing teams in a close proximity to play (at minimum) twice in the regular season helps foster rivalries and crank up fan interest. So even if a division title means nothing more than a dumb trophy, there’s still a point of pride that comes with it.
It should also be noted that unlike Conference USA, the Sun Belt is not a conference consistently hoping to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. That doesn’t really matter, as CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander explained on Twitter.
Getting a second team in the NCAAs is unlikely except in comet-like years. But this combined with the league alliance could result in a slight boost in seeding in either or both the NCAAs and NIT. When you’re the Sun Belt, this is ultimately a reasonable carrot to chase.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) June 4, 2018
While the difference of one seed line in the NCAA Tournament may not sound like much, think of how much more frequently we see 13 seeds beating 4 seeds rather than 14s over 3s. And that doesn’t mean just one more win for a Sun Belt team — that means an additional NCAA Tournament credit for the conference. Credits are shares of the tournament’s revenue, which are doled out based on how many games teams from each conference play. A First Round upset means a much larger paycheck for conferences with schools that struggle to compete with high-major programs.
We’re interested to see how this all works. Take a look at the Sun Belt’s release for other, smaller changes to the schedule. We’ll be talking with Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson as well, so check back here tomorrow for what he has to say.