Mid-major college basketball is officially entering an era of intra-conference scheduling evolution.
The Sun Belt announced Monday that, starting in 2019-2020, it is changing its men's basketball slate to a 20-game "smart schedule," which will include 16 games fitting into the ideal two-division model (five home and five away games vs. divisional opponents, three home/away games against non-divisional foes) and four other games that will pit the best teams in the standings against each other at the end of the season.
This push comes after Conference USA and the West Coast Conference announced similar initiatives in late May.
The Sun Belt is effectively implementing the idea of flex scheduling into its calendar, and by doing so hoping that the league will earn higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Plus, getting a second team under consideration for the NCAAs or the NIT is a major part of the calculus. This change was recently voted into effect at the league's annual meetings, made rule by Sun Belt presidents and chancellors and with the assistance of conference coaches and athletic directors.
"The Sun Belt plan centers around improving the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship seed of the conference's automatic qualifier, improving the resume of the best conference teams in order to receive additional bids to the NCAA Tournament and additional postseason opportunities should one of those teams not receive that conference's automatic qualifier, and also improving the conference tournament format and atmosphere," the league's press release states.
Here's how it will work: The final four games on the Sun Belt league schedule will be based on a pod system where the teams will be placed in four different to groups. Since the league has 12 schools, the pods break down thusly: 1-3; 4-6; 7-9; 10-12. Those rankings will come after results through 16 league games.
Each team will play home and away for the final four games of the schedule, meaning that the top-ranked team in the conference would get a home-and-home with the No. 2 and No. 3 team. The No. 2 would get the same vs. No. 1 and No. 3. No. 4 would be faced up with No. 5 and No. 6, and so on.
From there, the regular-season champion is determined. While the timing is coincidental with C-USA and the WCC (which isn't using flex scheduling), conversations for this change in the Sun Belt began in 2017. Nothing will change for the league next season. All these major amendments will go into place for 2018-19.
The Sun Belt will also be going to a two-division setup. In the East Division: Appalachian State; Coastal Carolina; Georgia Southern; Georgia State; Troy; and South Alabama. The West Division will be comprised of Arkansas State, Little Rock, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, UT Arlington and Texas State.
The conference is also updating its league tournament. The Smoothie King Center in New Orleans will be the host going forward, and beginning in 2020-21, the men's tournament will feature the league's top 10 teams. Home court will be afforded in the early rounds to to the higher-seeded teams. The top two seeds will earn byes into the semifinals. The league tournament will begin the Saturday that is eight days before Selection Sunday and conclude eight days later, hours before the NCAA Tournament field is released on Selection Sunday. The men's and women's tournaments will be held at the Smoothie King Center, with the top four teams moving on to play there, giving it a destination/"Final Four" type of format and feel for the conference.
There's still more. The Sun Belt is also working with an undisclosed conference in a non-league scheduling alliance as means to boost the conference's out-of-league scheduling metrics. There is no timeline on when the partnership with that conference will be made public, but the alliance is set to begin for 2019-2020.
It amounts to wholesale changes for the league, and it seems plausible that other conferences could soon follow suit.