SEC coaches bounce around permanent opponent options

dcloninger@thestate.comJune 30, 2014 

USC coach Frank Martin

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com

The change won’t happen for another season, but the SEC’s basketball coaches are already expressing their opinions on the league’s new scheduling format – going to three permanent opponents instead of the current one.

The problem that the league office has is figuring out which teams get the most visible team, Kentucky, as one of their three permanents.

“I would certainly be fine with three permanent opponents as I am with one permanent opponent,” longtime Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said on a conference call on Monday. “As crazy as it sounds, I’d be fine if we played everybody twice.”

Stallings won’t get that wish – with 14 teams, the SEC would have to schedule 26 league games to accommodate that – but he could get one of his others.

“I’m not lobbying to try to get anyone, but I think everyone would like to have Kentucky, because Kentucky has been the bell cow in the league for years and years,” Stallings said. “I think if you gave just about everybody a choice, if they did not consider the competitive disadvantage it would create because it’s awfully tough to beat them, everybody would want to play Kentucky.”

Kentucky’s current permanent foe is Florida. It seems natural that Vanderbilt and Tennessee would be the Wildcats’ other two, because of geography and history – those two have beaten Kentucky more times than any other SEC school.

But the other schools want to have a say in it. Nobody packs fans into an opponent’s gym like the Wildcats, and TV would be sure to follow. As Stallings said, there is the factor of a game that will be very hard to win, but there’s also showcasing the program on TV to potential recruits.

“The problem with one permanent opponent like we’ve had the last couple of years is you have a season like we had a year ago, with no Kentucky, no Florida, no Auburn, no Tennessee at home,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “No teams that our fans will really come out to see. That’s an issue that all teams run into. Maybe with more partners that we play every year, you can avoid some of that.”

The SEC’s other permanent opponents are: LSU-Texas A&M, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, Alabama-Auburn, Arkansas-Missouri, Georgia-South Carolina and Tennessee-Vanderbilt. Traditional football rivals (Florida-Auburn, Florida-Georgia, Tennessee-Alabama) may have a say in the basketball scheduling philosophy, but that also leaves the league’s newcomers (Missouri, Texas A&M and before them, Arkansas and USC) in the cold.

The Gamecocks’ Frank Martin plays Georgia twice a year and, just like every other coach, shared his opinion with the league during the SEC spring meetings. It’s a case of finding the best system to showcase all the teams, not just the “premier” matchups.

“All the schools kind of shared different ideas,” Martin said. “The biggest thing is with an unbalanced yearly schedule, it’s figuring out what we can do with our conference schedule to what best promotes the teams in our league. I think that’s what we’re fighting to find.”

Some schools have requested certain opponents, and some expressed their opinions on Monday about which permanents would make sense. Stallings said he wouldn’t be surprised if Vandy got Kentucky, Arkansas’ Mike Anderson mentioned Ole Miss as a natural fit and Fox said he would love to have Florida as one of his three.

“I think last year was the first time Georgia didn’t play Florida at home in 60 years or something,” Fox said. “I think that there’s obviously a lot of history in our conference, but that’s going to change if the conference grows.”

The SEC will announce the permanent opponents in the fall.

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