Growing ranks mean shrinking contests for OVC basketball schedules

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 7:31pm

The makeover continues for the Ohio Valley Conference as the Brentwood-based league adapts to its growth.

In all but two years of OVC basketball — the 2011-12 season will be the 64th year of men's competition and the 35th season of women's — the league’s schedule has consisted of a round-robin format. Every team played every other team twice, home and away.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), which has been making the transition from Division II, has been added to the league’s upcoming regular-season schedule. With 11 conference teams, there will be only 16 league games — down from 18 the last three years. With the new format, teams will play six schools twice and the other four just once.

The OVC could have expanded to a 20-game format, which it used from 2005-08 when it had 11 teams. The fear was that would keep league teams from scheduling important non-conference games, which can improve the schools' and the league’s RPI. The Tennessee State men’s basketball team, for example, is playing at South Carolina and North Carolina (most likely the top team in the country) on Nov. 20 and 22, respectively.

“I’m kind of old school. I think the best way [to crown a league champion] is to play everybody the same number of times,” Austin Peay men’s basketball coach Dave Loos said at the league’s media days on Tuesday. “With the way the conferences have grown in terms of the number of members and trying to get out of conference opportunities to improve your program that limits the number of games you can play. It is kind of where we are in college athletics right now.”

In May, the OVC announced it would add a 12th member, Belmont, for the 2012-13 season.

With that addition, OVC Commissioner Beth DeBauche said the plan is to stick to a 16-game schedule. In order to maintain some balance, though, the league is prepared to switch to a divisional format. There would be an East and a West, with Nashville as the dividing line.

DeBauche said the two divisions have not been set yet. But she said the league wants to keep “natural rivals” in tact.

It might be easier said than done with six schools west of Nashville, four schools east of the city, and two (Belmont and Tennessee State) in the Music City. DeBauche plans to have divisions set and a 2012-13 schedule finalized by Christmas.

Already, though, the divisional format has one opponent — TSU men’s basketball coach John Cooper.

Before coming to TSU prior to the 2009-10 season, Cooper spent five years as an assistant at Auburn. He also was an assistant at another SEC school, South Carolina, from 1995-2001. So he is very familiar with divisions, having coached on both the East and West sides in the SEC.

His biggest gripe is that divisions don’t allow for a true champion since not every school plays each other twice. One division could have three teams with 10 wins or more while the other has a 9-7 team as its champion. This also complicates matters when the eight-team league tournament rolls around in March and seeds are set.

“It doesn’t lend itself to fairness,” Cooper said. “The reason why I think it is the fairest thing to do is because now each team is judged on their own merit and what they have accomplished. I just struggle with when you have teams who have shown it throughout the year, but a 9-7 team gets a better seed than a 12-4 team. I think you should reward the people in the regular season that have shown it on a night in, night out basis.

“It is going to be somewhat unbalanced [with no divisions]. But I think you give up the balance for the sake of ... now teams are judged all the way fairly.”

The coaches voiced their concerns in a meeting on Monday in Nashville. DeBauche said those proposals would be reviewed by the school’s athletic directors and presidents and hopes to also have that finalized within the next two months.

“Two divisions are fine as long as you tell me we are going to re-seed,” Cooper said. “I think the re-seed makes it fair. Then, in that case, I understand. Now the question becomes how do you split them fairly? We’re in a tricky situation because we are in the middle. We could go any way. There are going to be some teams that go, ‘Hey, well that is not fair. I am in the league with [perennial contenders] Murray and Peay every year.’”