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Sun Belt convinced it’s stable for now – Men’s Hoops Changes Tournament Format

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, May 23, 2013

The likelihood of UL – or any other school – moving out of the Sun Belt anytime soon appears to have diminished significantly in recent weeks, conference commissioner Karl Benson suggested Wednesday.

The Ragin’ Cajuns, in other words, seem tied to the Sun Belt for at least a few more seasons to come, and maybe many more.

That word came on the same day Benson said in a conference call that the Sun Belt-member presidents and chancellors had made a “unanimous” decision at its just-concluded spring meetings in Destin, Fla., that “at this time there will be no further additions” to the conference.

That, Benson said, “more than likely” means the Sun Belt will be an 11-team football league in 2014, the first year Western Kentucky will have left the SBC for Conference USA.

“We will continue to evaluate the landscape of conference membership,” Benson said, “but at this juncture we did not believe there was a sense of urgency to move forward with any additions.”

“For us it’s really no longer a numbers game,” Troy chancellor and Sun Belt president Dr. Jack Hawkins added. “It’s a matter of quality and institutions than can add value to our membership.”

Both UL and Arkansas State have publically indicated an interest in joining North Texas, Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and WKU in the group of current Sun Belt schools leaving for C-USA.

But Benson suggested that, in part because membership movement among other conferences has slowed recently, he didn’t think there is cause to suspect any other current Sun Belt members will be leaving soon.

C-USA held its spring meetings last week, but did not announce any plans at that time to expand to 16 teams – something it has been considering and that gave UL hope it could make a move out of the Sun Belt.

It’s also unlikely C-USA will lose any more of its current members anytime soon, in part because the ACC made a media-rights decision last month – a program’s media revenue for all home games will stay with that conference regardless of its conference affiliation through the 2026-27 season – that essentially locks in its current members long-term.

That seems to have largely halted – at least for now – the trickledown effect of conference-jumping that’s occurred over the past year-plus.

It’s been a landscape makeover that created in a largely new-look Sun Belt, which will welcome Georgia Southern, Texas State and non-football-playing Texas-Arlington in July, and Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and, for football only, Idaho and New Mexico State starting in 2014.

“That’s helped us come to this decision to not act now (to replace Western Kentucky),” Benson said, “and to wait and revisit and continue to evaluate – that whatever threat that there may have been (for others leaving) appears to be lessened.

“We can spend time now developing our membership … and beginning the rivalries and beginning the play that’s ahead.”

Benson also indicated the Sun Belt decided during its meetings to make it harder for current members to leave the conference quickly.

A non-negotiable notice of least 12 months is now required, but he didn’t reveal a specific new exit-fee money amount.

Replacing Western Kentucky, meanwhile, remains tabled for now.

“I’m sure we will revisit this issue later this fall and early this winter,” Benson said. “But as we leave these meetings we are very, very satisfied and committed with (current membership structure).”

Benson said the Sun Belt has had “significant dialogue” the past 60 days with Virginia-based Liberty University regarding possible membership.

Liberty, according to Benson, received “strong consideration,” but no invite was extended. He didn’t say if Liberty has been ruled out for future consideration.

Liberty would have been the farthest-East member had it been invited, and it would have become the Sun Belt’s only religion-affiliated member.

“Several” applications for membership have recently been received by the conference, according to the commissioner.

But the Sun Belt wanted to make sure it found the proper fit, and it didn’t want to reach for a new member that doesn’t fit geographically and in general terms with current and incoming members.

The conference after this year will stretch no farther East than Georgia and West Virginia and no farther West for all-sport members than Texas.

“What’s been important to us from the very outset has been the geographic footprint,” Troy chancellor and Sun Belt president Dr. Jack Hawkins said. “We have worked hard to maintain, and we believe that’s in the best interest of our student-athletes in terms of their time away from class.”

Hawkins suggested that maintaining a tight footprint is important for fans as well.

“As we look into the future, the geographic footprint will continue to be important,” he said. “Having membership with comparable, similar institutions, I think, is important to all the CEOs.”

The decision means the conference will not be able to hold a conference football championship in 2014, something it has been considering but that requires 12-program football membership.

Financial implications of that decision are essentially offset by the fact 11 football-playing members will get a somewhat larger slice of an at-least $12 million pie created for the SBC by college football’s new-in-2014 playoff system.

The $12 million will be split 11 ways in 2014 for Sun Belt football schools rather than 12, resulting in almost $91,000 more per program.

“We believe we have choices and … we can be selective,” Benson said.

“Yes, it does mean we will delay getting to 12 (for football) and we will delay creating the creating the Eastern-half … division (of the Sun Belt),” he added, “but we believe that even though we may have to wait an extra year that we need to get it right and we need to make sure that the total pool of prospective members is given an opportunity to develop.”

Benson suggested the eventual 12th football-playing member could be an FCS jump-up program, but not all prospective candidates in which the Sun Belt might have interest are ready yet to make the leap to FBS play.

* * * * * * * * * *

Men’s hoops changes tournament format

The Sun Belt voted at its spring meetings this week to continue to play a double round-robin men’s and women’s basketball schedule.

That means teams will play 18 regular-season conference games next season, and 20 in the 2014-15 season, when Western Kentucky leaves for Conference USA but Georgia Southern and Appalachian State join the SBC.

The Sun Belt did, however, make one big basketball change.

Starting next season, when the conference moves its tournament from two courts in Hot Springs, Ark., to one at Lakeside Arena in New Orleans, a shortened men’s SBC tourney will include only the regular season’s top eight teams – not all, as has been the case.

Third- and fourth-seeded teams will receive byes to the quarterfinals, and first- and second-seeded teams receive byes to the semifinals.

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said the format is “similar to what the West Coast Conference has done for many years, to protect the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.”

“The rationale is to ensure your two best teams advance through the tournament and ultimately make it into the NCAA Tournament,” Benson said in a conference call.

“The Sun Belt needs to regain its stature as a men’s basketball league. … We need to get to a point where we’re either putting multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament or, even better, getting multiple teams in and winning games in the NCAA Tournament to maximize the NCAA basketball revenue potential.”

“As coaches we feel this format does that and makes regular-season conference play more meaningful,” Arkansas State coach John Brady added, according to a statement released by the conference.

“We are interested in doing what is best for the league and advancing the league. This format is a way of doing so.”

The Sun Belt’s No. 1 seed, Middle Tennessee, failed to win the past two tournaments, and the Sun Belt was a one-bid conference for the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

“For us,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said, “I think it is the fairest way to do it and rewards the top two teams for having great regular seasons.

“Also, I think it will create more to play for the last week of the season, whether it is trying to earn one of those two byes or just getting into the eight-team tournament.”

The women’s Sun Belt tourney will be a traditional eight-format.

Starting next season, women’s conference games will be played – with allowances for some exceptions – on Wednesday and Saturdays.

They previously were played on Wednesday or Thursday and Saturday or Sunday.