When Mike Hamilton sits down to watch the opening rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this week, he can’t help but feel a bit slighted.
Tennessee’s athletic director watched the Vols receive a ninth seed despite ranked No. 25 in RPI and No. 2 in strength of schedule.
Hamilton, however, doesn’t just feel slighted due to his allegiance. As a member of the SEC, he’s not too happy about how the NCAA tournament selection committee treated the conference.
“I’m disappointed,” Hamilton said. “I’m disappointed for our kids. I’m disappointed for the kids at LSU, disappointed for the kids at Mississippi State and Auburn and Florida and South Carolina and some other teams that could have possibly made it.
“While it’s true that we may not have as strong a league as we have typically had, I think we’re certainly a better league than three spots in the NCAA tournament.”
And only two at-large bids. Had Mississippi State not defeated UT in the SEC tournament to earn an automatic bid, the SEC would have had two teams in the NCAA tournament. LSU is an eighth seed. And Mississippi State sits at 13. The “football conference” hasn’t had less than five teams since 1996.
The decisions by the selection committee were surprising — but not shocking if one considers just how badly the SEC has been battered publicly this season. The SEC and its sub-standard play was a constant topic among national basketball media.
“During the year people talked a lot about our league being down so it sort of became a self-fulfilling prophecy at the end,” Hamilton said.
Constant negative publicity carries some of the blame. But so does the SEC, and the schools that refuse to schedule tougher, non-conference opponents.
“As it relates to RPI’s and so forth, (UT coach) Bruce (Pearl) has done a great job playing quality outside competition,” Hamilton said. “Kentucky has typically done that. Other teams do that sporadically.
“If we’re going to continue to build our national reputation, other schools in the league are going to have to ratchet up some of their non-conference scheduling. That then gives us more television exposure and it builds the RPI of individual schools, which then builds the RPI of our league.”
Under Pearl, the Vols will play Southern California, Kansas and Memphis next season.
“I think that those are games that national television wants to see and that the public wants to see,” Hamilton said. “We’re not afraid to go on the road to start those series because we know we’re going to get the return game.”
To Hamilton, playing a soft schedule to pad a win total is an antiquated attempt to get into the tournament.
“There was this old saying that 20 wins is the magical number,” Hamilton said. “Well, 20 wins is not necessarily the magic number now. Look at the NIT, there’s several 20-win programs that are perceived as pretty good programs but they didn’t make the NCAA tournament.”
National exposure will increase next season under the SEC’s new television deal with ESPN.
“It’s going to be hard to prove that (critics of the SEC were wrong) because we’ve got an eight seed, a nine seed and a 13 seed,” Hamilton said. “We got put in tough positions. But we’re athletic, we have good coaches and I think that we have a better league than three bids.”
Some have blamed SEC commissioner Mike Slive for not doing more to have his conference better represented in the NCAA tournament. Slive, however, isn’t allowed to be present when his schools’ interests are being discussed among committee members.
SEC fans want deals to be made. That may be tougher said than done.
“I’m sure he advocated for our league in someway shape or form with the others on the committee before the committees began their final meetings,” Hamilton said. “Everybody is trying to position their programs even though they can’t be in the room when the committee is talking about their programs. “Wheeling and dealing, I don’t know.”