When NCAA Tournament bids were extended in March and only three SEC men's basketball teams were in the field, first-year South Carolina coach Frank Martin couldn't help but feel partially responsible.
The Gamecocks finished 14-18, and their low Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) — 224th among 347 Division I teams, according to espn.com — helped drag down the conference's overall RPI. Strength of schedule is a primary component of a team's RPI, a complicated evaluation tool that is a prominent factor the NCAA selection committee considers.
South Carolina's nonconference strength of schedule ranked 322nd, which Martin called "unacceptable."
"That impacts every team in our league in a negative way," Martin said. "Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky got left out of the NCAA Tournament. They had decent RPIs. As long as we're going to rely on computers to make part of the decision and not rely on the human element, then you have to make your number look good because that's the only thing the computer does. Computers read numbers."
Selecting 68 teams for the tournament isn't an exact science, but strength of schedule is a major component. Though the SEC's 18-game conference schedule is set in stone, raising the bar for nonconference games has become a major emphasis.
"What we're all trying to say is we're all tied to each other," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "So if your nonconference schedule is really bad, it's affecting us and what they are looking at in our RPI."
To encourage upgrading nonconference schedules, the SEC will require its schools to submit schedules for review before they are finalized. Commissioner Mike Slive, who served on the selection committee for several years, enlisted Greg Shaheen, who spent 12 years as the NCAA executive vice president for championships and alliances, to help coaches develop schedules.
"We will … put some analytics to it and help our institutions schedule in a way that's going to be helpful not only to them in terms of postseason, but helpful to us," Slive said.
For the coaches, it's a welcome benefit.
"I think one of the things that was very, very eye-opening to the coaches (during discussions) was just how much every school's scheduling impacts the other teams," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Because you are going to play those teams, you are also being compared to what those teams have done against the other teams you are playing against.
"I think just the whole education process of not only the RPI, but the scheduling and how to go about scheduling, the importance of it, is really, really good. And you have guys in this league that are all in different situations. I think there will be some understanding and leniency to help the coaches with scheduling appropriately where it's going to help our league as well as the schools."
Slive said the league office will operate in an advisory role, but coaches said it's imperative schools ultimately make the final decision.
"Each school probably has their own independent way of thinking when it comes to scheduling," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "But it's getting harder and harder to schedule as leagues have expanded. There's fewer and fewer teams that are willing to go home-and-home in the nonleague because the leagues have gotten so tough."
Even with the SEC's assistance, the coaches acknowledge there are no guarantees. Martin recalls a colleague who scheduled a team that won its conference tournament title the season before but had a low RPI.
"You have to try to gauge who's going to have a winning record, who has got a good returning class, who had a pretty good RPI," Martin said. "Scheduling is not as easy as it was 20 years ago. It's a lot more complicated."
The Ratings Percentage Index is a primary consideration among many the NCAA uses when selecting teams for its Division I postseason tournaments, including basketball. A complicated formula is used to determine each team's rating. Basically, winning percentage is 25 percent of it, opponents' strength of schedule 50 percent and opponents' opponents' strength of schedule 25 percent. Teams can't determine whom they play in conference games but do determine whom they play in nonconference games. The bottom line: Playing tough competition helps comes selection time.
Breaking down the SEC
The 2012-13 record, nonconference strength of schedule ranking (SOS) and RPI ranking for each SEC men's team among the 347 Division I teams (in bold made the NCAA Tournament):
School Rec. SOS RPI
Alabama 20-12 84 60
Arkansas 19-13 122 88
Auburn 9-23 303 254
Florida 26-7 8 9
Georgia 15-17 145 141
Kentucky 21-11 73 56
LSU 19-12 226 85
Mississippi 26-8 280 48
Mississippi State10-22 298 232
Missouri 23-10 82 35
South Carolina 14-18 322 224
Tennessee 20-12 47 58
Texas A&M 18-15 31 99
Vanderbilt 16-17 61 110
Average 18-14 148.7 107.1
Breaking down the leagues
The 2012-13 average record, nonconference strength of schedule (SOS) ranking and RPI ranking among Division I teams for the leagues that had the most teams in the tournament:
League Bids Rec. SOS RPI
ACC4 20-14 189.3 89.2
Atlantic 105 18-14 118.9 98.2
Big East8 21-13 183.7 69.4
Big Ten7 22-13 138.7 67.2
Big 125 20-14 144.2 91.3
Mountain West5 21-13 142.6 63.3
Pac-125 20-14 150.9 89.8