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Q&A: Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson talks strategic scheduling and more

The league is hoping the changes spur deep runs in the NCAA Tournament

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Nashville Practice Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Sun Belt announced changes to its regular season schedule and tournament format on Monday, which you can read about here. Notably, these included non-conference scheduling alliances with peer leagues, an updated 20-game league schedule that features a “pod” system and automatic byes to the league tournament semifinals for the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.

We caught up with Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson to discuss the new model, which will take effect during the 2019-2020 season. Here’s what he had to say about the origin of the changes, the objectives behind them, a familiar face leading the charge and more.

On the origin of the changes:

Karl Benson: “I think all conferences are trying to evaluate their current scheduling policies, whether it’s non-conference, regular season and tournament format. It’s a fairly regular occurrence. We were contacted by Mark Adams last Fall, who I’ve known for a long time and is familiar in the Sun Belt. He had this idea that he wanted to run by us, and came to the office back in the Fall and introduced it to us. It was intriguing, so he went ahead and put it in a proposal. He then introduced it to our coaches and athletic directors in the Fall.”

On Adams, the former college coach and current broadcaster, who Benson said was the driving force behind the changes:

KB: “Mark made some visits to campuses, met with coaches individually, and athletic directors, and even presidents and chancellors got involved. He was trying to sell his idea, and in March at the Sun Belt Tournament the athletic directors, presidents and chancellors met together and Mark made a presentation. As a group, the presidents and chancellors got excited about it, the athletic directors got excited about it. Coaches were still coaching, and once the season got over, he continued to try and communicate with the coaches. It wasn’t until our Spring meeting two weeks ago that the coaches had an opportunity to sit around the table together and review it for the first time. [Adams] was the one who introduced it and sold it to the coaches. Ultimately we really had to sell it to the presidents and chancellors and [Adams] did a great job of selling it.”

On the importance of a conference like the Sun Belt adopting strategic scheduling:

KB: “What we do know is right now there are seven conferences that are not only getting the vast majority of the at-large bids, but we’re also seeing those conferences getting the good seeds. The No. 9, 10, 11 or 12 seeds that we used to be getting. We’re tired of having our champion getting a lack of respect and getting No. 14 or 15 seeds. That’s what we’re trying to overcome. History shows that No. 11 or 12 seeds are winning first round NCAA Tournament games.”

On the goals of the changes:

KB: “All of this is to hopefully get a second team in the tournament, but if not, to allow our champion to get a good seed that will allow a Sun Belt team to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. And our ultimate goal, obviously, is to have a team get to the Final Four. This model has the ingredients to enhance our chances to do that.”

On a potential partnership with Conference USA, which announced a similar model earlier in the offseason:

KB: “We know that Mark Adams is the deal maker here, and the fact that he was instrumental in Conference USA’s scheduling, we hope that Conference USA will be a part of an alliance. When you look at the footprint of Conference USA and the Sun Belt, and the history between the two conferences, those matchups would make a lot of sense geographically and from a rivalry standpoint.”

On the value to the league of Sun Belt teams winning NCAA Tournament games — as Georgia State (2015-16) and Little Rock (2016-17) have in recent seasons:

KB: “They do bring attention. Teams that play that second game, all of a sudden it goes from 68 teams to 32 teams, and what really sets apart and provides the conference a big stage is to put a team in the Sweet 16. When you look at the 16 teams that are playing on the second weekend, there’s only a handful of conferences that are a part of those games. That’s when a conference can really gain exposure and notoriety and name recognition. This is all hoping that this gets us to a point where we’re on a regular basis not just winning one game, but winning two and getting into the Sweet 16.”

On whether there has been anything lacking with current non-conference scheduling within the league:

KB: “Coaches have different motives in the conference. What may be in the best interest of one school, may be different than another. I think there needed to be organization and structure in trying to create better matchups, especially home opportunities, and this alliance will match peer schools and provide good home games.”

On the new “pod” system giving each team in the league something to play for over the regular season’s last four games:

KB: “We haven’t officially named it this yet, but for the sake of possibility, we’re going to refer to the 16-game season as the ‘regular season’ and then the last two weeks as the ‘pre-tournament series.’ In each one of those pods, when you break it down, teams are playing for something. The first three are playing for the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, the second group is playing for that No. 4 seed which is a bye, the next pod is playing for home court advantage in the preliminary games in the tournament, and then the last pod, one team out of the last pod qualifies for the 10-team tournament. So we’re expecting those last two weeks on all 12 campuses to generate fan interest, and attendance will increase.”

On whether other measures were discussed and ultimately not adopted:

KB: “We looked at various tournament formats. We’ve been all over the board on tournament formats. We currently have 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams and bring them all to New Orleans. We looked at all the various potential and believe that a final four model for both the men and women coming to an NBA arena in downtown New Orleans will be used as a showcase of Sun Belt basketball.”