There's an interesting story today out of the Sun Belt Conference, and it's that the conference has gotten together and developed a strategic plan to life the profile of the conference. The goal is to lift conference attendances across the board, and get the conference to repeatedly have seasons like 2008, when the conference earned two NCAA Tournament bids and got one team (Western Kentucky) to the Sweet 16.
One thing that's bizarre about the plan is its constant references to the RPI, and scheduling tougher teams to raise the RPI of the conference to get more teams into the NCAA Tournament. As I've talked about many, many times, the RPI just doesn't matter anymore. If you read my analysis of the computer models from 2009 and 2010, you'll see that the RPI is a horrible predictor of NCAA appearances. And it's important to understand that, because the RPI can be rigged by coaches. The RPI rewards for scheduling more than performance. If you schedule a bunch of really good teams and lose every game you will end up with an improved RPI, but it won't get you into the Tournament because the Selection Committee won't fall for that.
That said, scheduling tougher teams will improve the conference for a few other reasons. It will raise attendances, it will help prepare teams for the NCAA Tournament, and if you play enough of those you'll eventually learn how to win some.
I talked about the development of the Sun Belt about a year ago. What I mentioned then was that there is a niche that the Sun Belt can fill. The players who just aren't quite good enough to play regularly for elite teams in the northeast, midwest, mountain west or pacific west, there are obvious mid-major teams for them to play for. But in the southeast? It's not clear. There just aren't many good mid-major teams in the southeast. There just isn't a WCC or Atlantic Ten or Missouri Valley in the southeast Any conference that can fill that niche will have access to the best players that don't quite make the SEC. Playing better opposition, and playing to bigger crowds, will help bring kids in.
To me, the prime competition for the Sun Belt is the Southern Conference. If we put the six BCS conferences, along with the Mountain West, Atlantic Ten and Missouri Valley in the upper echelon of college basketball, the next tier is the WCC, WAC, Colonial, Conference USA, MAAC and Horizon. The MAC has faded in and out of that tier over the past few years. And the Southern Conference is poised for a really big year in 2010-11, and could join that tier for at least one season. Both Davidson and Charleston are going to be very good, and the conference could potentially have four teams in the RPI Top 100.
But longterm, there's no reason the Sun Belt can't move to a higher level. Having FBS football is a big plus for recruits, they've got some high profile coaches (Mike Jarvis, Isiah Thomas, John Brady), and if they really can build up the size of the crowds and bring in some big opponents then the conference definitely has room to grow.
But hopefully they realize that building their conference RPI isn't going to help.