When taking a look at the last sixteen plus years of college basketball, it becomes clear that a hierarchy has formed. Starting at the top, the “haves” include the ACC, Big Ten, PAC 12, and others. The next rung down includes conferences like the AAC and WCC that are almost but not quite at the top.
You then take a step into the mid-majors (I hate that term) full of conferences like the Missouri Valley, Conference USA, and the MAC that can send two teams to the Big Dance in any season. There is still yet another tier that includes conferences like the America East, Northeast, MAAC, and others that will only ever get a single bid to the tournament in any given year.
Finally, after sifting through every other conference in men’s basketball, you see the SWAC. Sadly, this historic conference that started with a group of six colleges in 1920 is the lowest rated conference in college basketball on a yearly basis.
If you take a look back to 2000 – virtually the entirety of the SWAC’s current incarnation – here is what you see from the NCAA Tournament:
SWAC NCAA Tournament history:
- 2016: Southern (22-12) #16 seed (Play-in game). Lost 59-55.
- 2015: Texas Southern (22-12) #15 seed. Lost 93-72.
- 2014: Texas Southern (19-14) #16 seed (Play-in game). Lost 81-69.
- 2013: Southern (23-9) #16 seed. Lost 64-58.
- 2012: Mississippi Valley State (21-12) #16 seed (Play-in game). Lost 59-58.
- 2011: Alabama State (17-17) #16 seed (Play-in game). Lost 70-61.
- 2010: Arkansas-Pine Bluff (17-15) #16 seed (Play-in game). Won 61-44.
- 2009: Alabama State (22-9) #16 seed (Play-in game). Lost 58-41.
- 2008: Mississippi Valley State (17-15) #16 seed. Lost 70-29.
- 2007: Jackson State (21-13) #16 seed. Lost 112-69.
- 2006: Southern (19-12) #16 seed. Lost 70-54.
- 2005: Alabama A&M (18-14) #16 seed (Play-in game). Lost 79-69.
- 2004: Alabama State (16-14) #16 seed. Lost 96-61.
- 2003: Texas Southern (18-12) #16 seed (Play-in game).
- 2002: Alcorn State (21-9) #16 seed (Play-in game).
- 2001: Alabama State (22-8) #16 seed.
- 2000: Jackson State (17-15) #16 seed. Lost 71-47.
One thing quickly jumps out about the SWAC; the conference is almost always starting the tournament as one of the biggest underdogs in the nation. During this 17-year span, the SWAC has been above a #16 seed once – two years ago – and has seen a play-in game on nine occasions. The lone win came in 2010 with Arkansas-Pine Bluff defeating Winthrop 61-44 in the very first play-in game before falling to Duke in the “second” round.
Another point of note is that only three teams represented the SWAC in the Big Dance with less than 10 losses. It shows just how close the conference is from top to bottom, but the conference tournament also ends with way too many upsets and rarely sends a hot team to the tournament. Short of scrapping the conference tournament and sending the regular season champion to the tournament like the Ivy League, there is no real solution.
Even this season, the top team in the conference is Texas Southern and that team is 11-10 and coming off a double-digit loss to 3-18 Mississippi Valley State. A screenshot of the current conference standings better explains the dire predicament of the SWAC:
Finally, there’s the financial elephant in the room that very few people like to mention.
USA Today published the revenue, expenses, and subsidies of 231 NCAA programs. The highest ranked SWAC program on the list was Alabama State with a budget of $14,597, 561. That ranked them 162nd in the nation, more than five million dollars behind College of Charleston.
Sadly, that is on the high end for the SWAC as only half the conference has a budget above $10 million, while four of the nation’s bottom ten are here with Mississippi Valley State sporting a budget of barely over $4 million, ranking next to last.
The SWAC simply cannot keep up with the spending of other athletic departments throughout the country, something that can be seen with the lack of resources that many other programs take for granted.
What can be done to reverse the trend?
In my humble opinion, the SWAC programs are doing a disservice to the conference and individual teams with ridiculous non-conference slates. This season, the SWAC has four of the top ten ranked non-conference schedules (Texas Southern, MVSU, Prairie View, Alcorn State).
Texas Southern has been the most egregious violator of scheduling way above their ability. In the last five seasons, the Tigers have ranked in the top ten nationally in non-conference strength of schedule three times. They are on pace for another top ten ranking with the third toughest non-conference strength of schedule this season.
Just listen to this run that the Tigers faced at one point this season: Louisiana-Lafayette, Arizona, Southern Illinois, Louisville, Cincinnati, LSU, TCU, Baylor, all on the road; they didn’t play their first home game of the season until January 14 versus Grambling.
I understand head coach Mike Davis’ philosophy of playing good teams on the road to prepare for a run in the NCAA tournament, but the problem with that philosophy is the chance of a team full of beaten-up players with confidence issues due to being destroyed on a nightly basis.
Will the SWAC ever become a mid-major player?
The only real hope from any SWAC program and the conference as a whole is to get a few highly rated recruits together and look at a four-year play to become relevant. No SWAC team has the recruiting ability or overall skill level to run with the top mid-major teams on a yearly basis. In the past, even more in football, the SWAC was able to put together talented classes with players like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, and Michael Strahan while the basketball side saw players like Avery Johnson and Willis Reed.
At this current time, the highest hope for the SWAC moving forward is an occasional team earning a #13 or even #12 seed during a very special season. Even that is a bit of a pipe dream considering their tournament history to date. That being said, I would love more than anything for the SWAC to be a more relevant conference in the future. It would be great to see a Jackson State or Texas Southern make a run in the NCAA Tournament.