As someone recently pointed out to me, does anyone really care about winning the section anymore? Ever since USAU expanded the number of regions from 8 to 10, split D3/Dev from D1, and created new conferences, sectionals/conferences has been boring. Sure, it was cool that Bama continued their winning streak, and then it was cool that Auburn broke that streak to win their first title since Rob White’s heyday with the Hare Jordans. But did it actually matter?
Making regionals used to mean something significant because it really was the best of the best. The last year of the 8 region setup, 462 men’s teams competed for 128 spots at regionals. The South region alone had 54 teams, meaning 29.7% advanced. Compare that to this year’s SE region- 32 teams fighting for the same 16 spots, so 50% of teams advance. Considering 7 of those teams are fighting for 1 spot, we have 25 teams fighting over 15 spots, or a 60% advancement rate. The top teams no longer have to worry about making regionals anymore and this is a great thing for competition.
Non-elite teams used to have to peak at sectionals just in order to have a chance at advancing. What they did after sectionals was never given much thought because no one was really sure they were going to make it. Since the expansion from 8->10 regions, a team from the GC has at least made a game to go to a game to go every year except one. The last time that happened prior to 2011 was probably LSU sometime around 2000 (didn’t look it up because time), but we have now done it 4 out of 5 years and that streak will likely continue in 2016.
Teams now view regular season events with more importance than sectionals. A coach told me he doesn’t care if his star players win POTY or the section title, he only cares if they dominate games that determine nationals’ bids during the season and Sunday games at regionals. When USAU got rid of size/region strength bids and went to auto/team strength bids only, it became obvious that elite teams should put more energy into the regular season since it could make their postseason paths much easier. Teams quit playing lots of local tournaments and started to figure out how to maximize the return on their game-play.
Gone are the days where Ttown Throwdown was essentially Sectionals Part 1, Mardi Gras Part 2, and Music City Tuneup Part 3. Instead of playing essentially everyone in your section at least once (and sometimes 2-3 times) before the end of the regular season, teams are going to California, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, and everywhere in between to find the best path for themselves. That means you may see 2 or 3 teams from your conference in the regular season total.
Sectionals used to matter not only because it was so much harder to qualify for regionals, but because we all played each other so often in the regular season. Teams knew everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and they knew how to exploit them. Games were so intense because you were playing the known enemy, the ones you had shared the field with so often. People cared because you knew you could beat each other, and there were real consequences to losing games. A 3rd backdoor safety net didn’t exist.
The same issues exist with All-Section voting these days. Because teams hardly see each other anymore, they really don’t know who the best players are. A guy like Stephen Rhea at Samford got tons of respect from his fellow players back his era because every team from the section that played them knew how good he was as an individual even if Samford wasn’t that great as a whole. It is almost impossible to separate the skill of the individual from the skill of the team unless you’ve had to mark someone for 30 points across the season.
Of course, if someone other than Auburn/Tulane (and I suppose LSU) wins this year, then it WILL matter. It would not only be a huge upset to see UAB/MSU win their first title or Bama/Vandy reclaim their former glory, but it would also throw a wrench in the regionals seeding. That is what makes sectionals matter in the end.
End rambling thoughts. Predictions to come when weather forecast is clearer. Feel free to use this post as the sectionals hype/trash talk thread.