The numbers normally don’t lie and the numbers are saying one thing – the Southeastern Conference Western Division isn’t very strong and it hasn’t been for quite a long time.
One number that can put the division’s recent stagnant basketball history into statistical context is 16. Meaning if the league’s division, which doesn’t have a school in the Top 50 of Ratings Percentage Index, were its own six team conference, it would be ranked as just the 16th-best league in the country behind non-traditional powers like the Ivy League.
“Several of the teams in that division are either on a bad down cycle – Arkansas comes to mind,” CBS Sports college basketball analyst Seth Davis said. “Or they're just not the traditionally powerful schools in the SEC, which are obviously located in the East.”
The Eastern Division has powers like Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, who are all in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projection of the 2011 field of 68. Those traditional powers have wins over BCS-conference schools like North Carolina, Marquette, Kansas State, Xavier, Villanova and Pittsburgh to keep the RPI numbers of the entire league looking more than respectable.
“When you're talking about our half, every game we play is going to be a hard game,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “When we have to go to Tennessee twice, Florida twice, South Carolina twice, Vandy - who may be the best team in the league, and Georgia, who may be right there with them, those 10 games, our schedule strength will still be in the top 15. I look at that and I say, you know, this league is going to be fine.”
Financial resources could be another reason for the extreme dropoff.
While all the SEC West football programs are inside or near the Top 20 in head coaching salaries in the country, Calipari's $3.96 million salary is more than SEC West foes Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Arkansas pay their head men’s basketball coaches combined by nearly half a million dollars.
“In my short term, the West was stronger when I first got here, and now it’s the East,” LSU third-year head coach Trent Johnson said. “I don’t think it matters.”
A major talent discrepancy may be another reason as the SEC West has produced only one first round pick (Anthony Randolph was the 13th pick in 2007) in the National Basketball Association Draft since 2006. The Kentucky program produced five first-round selections in this past year draft.
“What player in (the West) side of the division is a guaranteed future pro,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes asked when asked by The Starkville Daily News on the difference. “I'm not convinced there is one. Where as in the East, multiple guys, (Trey Thompkins, Tobias Harris, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Jeffrey Taylor and Travis Leslie) all will be in the league at some point.”
The West teams didn’t have a single win against a Top 50 team until Arkansas defeated a Tennessee squad Saturday without its head coach in the league opener for both teams.
A mind-boggling number to support why that Razorbacks win was historical is a paltry win-loss record: 0-24.
That’s the combined regular season record of West teams in the crossover matchup with Eastern Division opponents last season.
“The teams in the East forced to play on the first day of the conference tournament will be far superior to the West teams that get byes,” Dykes said. "There's nothing fair about that but that’s the way it is right now.”
In that streak last season, that means all 12 road opponents walked into the arenas of Western schools and got victories.
“You better be at least 10 points better on the road than the team you’re playing especially in league play and our kids understand that,” Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said after the win last weekend.
Another number to help bolster the argument of the West’s poor play is six.
Since 2006, the Western Division has had only six teams earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament and two programs (Auburn and Ole Miss) don’t combine for any of those selections.
When the topic of postseason play begins to be part of the discussion, the talk shifts on what one of the six Western Division teams must do short of winning the 2011 SEC Tournament in Atlanta to reach March Madness? The opinions in early January are split right now.
“I'd be shocked if at least one of those teams from the West doesn't get in,” Davis said. “Somebody is going to win the division, obviously, and let's remember there are three more at large spots to fill this year. Look around at the ACC and Pac 10 – those conferences are no great shakes either. You have to fill out the tournament somehow.”
Dykes, who is a resident of Arkansas, feels like a Western Division team is going to have to continue what the Razorbacks did Saturday by taking many of the crossover matchups with the East while establishing its dominance in its half of the league.
“I do not think you can put a number on a team out of the West to hit in order to make it as an at large team,” Dykes said. "The champion of the West MUST get wins over NCAA tournament type teams, something that entire division lacks heading into conference play.”
Otherwise Dykes sees the result parallel with last season when Mississippi State was a high seed in the National Invitational Tournament.
“Can a team or teams from the West jump up and get 4-5 high quality wins vs. the best of the East? Yes,” said Dykes. “If so, they will most likely get in. It will not be good enough to just win the West and at the end of the year if all that team has done is rack up wins against other SEC West squads.”