published Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Southern Conference basketball sliding downward

Elon's Austin Hamilton (10) looks to drive against Duke's Quinn Cook (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Greensboro, N.C., on Tuesday.
Elon's Austin Hamilton (10) looks to drive against Duke's Quinn Cook (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Greensboro, N.C., on Tuesday.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Southern Conference stinks.

Even conference commissioner John Iamarino acknowledged that the quality of basketball played by the 11 men's teams in the league during the nonconference stretch of the season has not been up to his standard.

"We haven't had a strong nonconference season," Iamarino said Tuesday. "What we've had is a lot of close losses to good teams."

The lack of preconference success means the SoCon certainly will not have two schools selected to participate in the NCAA tournament's field of 68. Of course, the league never has had two teams in an NCAA tournament.

"You have to win your share of games," Iamrino said, "and we haven't done that this year."

The 2009 Davidson team may have been selected as an at-large team if it reached the championship game of the SoCon tournament. But one year after reaching the Elite Eight in the Big Dance, the Wildcats lost in semifinals of the SoCon tournament to the College of Charleston, which then lost to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the championship game.

The SoCon has slid in the Ratings Performance Index ever since. The RPI is a key factor that the NCAA selection committee uses to determine the field for the NCAA tournament and how it seeds the teams.

As of Wednesday, the SoCon ranked 29th out of 31 NCAA conferences according to RealTimeRPI.com. Only the America East, the Mid-Eastern Athletic and the collection of independent schools -- which consists this year of only the New Jersey Institute of Technology -- ranked lower than the SoCon, whose teams are 29-28 against other teams from traditonal one-bid leagues.

"I know we haven't won many high-major games, and that's how you raise your RPI," Samford coach Bennie Seltzer said. "If everybody [in the SoCon] would have won two or three of those games, then our RPI would be through the roof."

Instead, the SoCon's RPI is so much closer to the cellar. And that doesn't include the three losses SoCon schools have had against non-Division I teams.

"The last three years, our trend has been downward," Iamarino said. "What are we not doing? What can we do? It appears that we're not having success against comparable conferences."

There are five teams rated in the bottom 34 teams out of the 351 teams competing in Division I basketball. Four SoCon schools are ranked in the 200s. Before Wednesday's games started across the country, Elon was the top-ranked SoCon school at No. 101 after getting whipped by Duke, 86-48, on Tuesday in the Greensboro Coliseum.

"I'm sure commissioners and administrators are more focused on it, but my concern is to get my team to be as good as possible," Georgia Southern coach Mark Byington said. "It could turn around with one or two players. In basketball, if you get a good recruiting class, the next thing you know you have a top 100 or top 75 team."

But that doesn't exist in the SoCon this season.

The result of having so many poor teams -- financially and competitively -- could make for a compelling conference season and an intense SoCon tournament, however. SoCon competition starts today with UNC Greensboro playing at Western Carolina and Wofford playing at Samford. Those games just start the seeding for the conference tournament.

"I think we do have to have a serious conversation with our coaches in the spring and talk about what we can do collectively to provide the tools to make it easier to have success and make it easier to recruit top players," Iamarino said. "The regular season, the conference schedule, will still be very interesting because of that word -- parity.

"I think it's going to be an interesting season."

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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