SoCon commish has no regrets on automatic qualifier

March, 23, 2009
Quick hitters on the Monday of Sweet 16 week:

• The Southern Conference went from having a No. 10 seed in the tournament and an Elite Eight appearance a year ago with Davidson to a No. 16 seed and a 103-47 loss to Connecticut this season.

Does the Southern Conference have regrets that Chattanooga represented the conference as the automatic qualifier instead of Davidson, the regular-season champ?


The conferences, not the NCAA tournament selection committee, decide how to allocate the automatic qualifier. For example, the Ivy League's regular-season champ earns the automatic qualifier, and the conference has no postseason tournament.

Chattanooga finished 18-17 overall, 11-9 in the Southern Conference and seven games behind first-place Davidson. But Davidson lost to the College of Charleston in the Southern Conference semifinals at Chattanooga. The Mocs then went on to beat the College of Charleston in the final.

"Clearly, there are different emotions," Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino said. "[Chattanooga] ran into one of the best teams [in the NCAA tournament] and didn't play well and were taken back by an avalanche of dunks and turnovers."

Iamarino said the conference has never considered getting rid of its postseason tournament and designating the automatic qualifier to the regular-season champ.

"If you have a tournament, it has to mean something," Iamarino said. "You have to attach it to the automatic qualifier. In this case, clearly the best team didn't win the tournament, and that is one of the pitfalls of a conference tournament, and everyone understands that going in."

Really? Everyone?

"Three days in March shouldn't determine the best team in the conference," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. "The conference champion that wins the regular season should get the bid."

McKillop said conference tournaments should be played to help teams earn at-large berths. That is true in the power six conferences. Schools that pick up wins in the conference tournaments (such as Oklahoma State over Oklahoma in the Big 12) can enhance their NCAA tourney résumés without winning the automatic bid.

"That's how [conference] tournaments should help with the [NCAA] tournament," McKillop said.

To perhaps help with a possible at-large berth, the Southern Conference is changing its schedule by reducing the number of conference games from 20 to 18.

That gives teams two more nonconference games to schedule early in its season. If Davidson had had that opportunity this season, the Wildcats might have improved their NCAA candidacy by winning one or two more quality games.

The Southern Conference will play a round-robin tournament within the division. Teams will play two of the other teams twice, and four others once (two of them at home and two on the road).

• Head coach Billy Gillispie wants to stay at Kentucky. When I spoke to him last week, he was adamant that he wants to remain with the Wildcats. Whether the Wildcats want him is still up for discussion, but Gillispie isn't shopping himself. If Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson return, with their incoming recruiting class, Gillispie thinks the Wildcats can be an elite team next season. "I want to coach here," Gillispie said. "We're close to being great next year."

Two years isn't enough to grade a coach, if the evaluation is based on on-court performance -- even at Kentucky. The Wildcats were a few more home wins away from being an NCAA tournament team. Getting better point guard play will be key for UK to reach the NCAA tournament next season. But there is no guarantee that Patterson and Meeks will return. Expect at least Patterson to test the NBA draft process by declaring.

• Kentucky is expected to play in the Big East-SEC Invitational in New York next season, possibly against Connecticut. It also will host Louisville and North Carolina and play at Indiana next season. Kentucky is willing to go on the road for another big-time game. Its tournament of choice is apparently in Cancun, Mexico, with home games to start the event before heading south of the border.

• Minnesota coach Tubby Smith took himself out of the coaching carousel for Arizona, Virginia and Georgia by saying he will stay with the Gophers.

• Coaching decisions should be coming at Virginia, Alabama, Arizona and Georgia in the next two weeks once teams lose in tournaments.

The coaching carousel isn't in full swing yet and might produce major dominoes only if the Kentucky job opens. If it doesn't, and some of the big names (Memphis' John Calipari and Michigan State's Tom Izzo) stay put as expected (even though coaching colleagues continuously throw their names around), these schools may not get their first choice. Smith was one of those big names who was being bandied about within the biz, but he then made public statements that he's staying put.

Coaches whom schools will seek in some form who could use the leverage to get a bump in salary: Xavier's Sean Miller, VCU's Anthony Grant, Missouri's Mike Anderson and possibly Miami's Frank Haith.

• Kentucky's Patterson has a decision to make. Whom else should you keep an eye on as the NBA draft deadline looms next month?

Among the top underclassman names who will mull over decisions to declare for the draft: Oklahoma's Blake Griffin; Arizona State's James Harden; Florida State's Solomon Alabi, Wake Forest's trio of Jeff Teague, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jeff Johnson; Duke's Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler; North Carolina's Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington; Clemson's Trevor Booker; Louisville's Earl Clark; Arizona's Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise; Georgetown's Greg Monroe; Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet; Pitt's DeJuan Blair; Syracuse's Jonny Flynn; Ohio State's B.J. Mullens; USC's DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson; UCLA's Jrue Holiday, Memphis' Tyreke Evans; Kansas' Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich; Oklahoma State's James Anderson; Davidson's Stephen Curry; and Saint Mary's Patrick Mills.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer




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