hbcu basketball... a decade of disappointment

by Prez Ro, Matteson, IL

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Midway through the 2011-12 college basketball season only a half dozen men’s and women’s historically black college teams have an overall winning record.

As of Tuesday (1/31/2012), out of the 46 teams that make up the SWAC and MEAC Division 1 men’s and women’s squads, just six — that’s right — six are in the black when it comes to wins and losses.

On the men’s side those schools include the MEAC’s Norfolk State (16-7) and Savannah State (12-10). The SWAC does not feature a single team with an overall record above .500, although second place Southern breaks even at 11-11.

Florida A&M (15-5), Hampton (16-4), Howard (15-7) and Coppin State (12-10) representing MEAC women’s basketball have complied the other four winning seasons so far. The closet SWAC women’s teams with above average records this season are Southern (8-8) and Alabama A&M (10-10).

At first blush three things immediately standout here.

The level of competitiveness throughout Division 1 HBCU basketball is still well behind other power or mid-major conferences.
The MEAC is a better basketball conference than the SWAC.
MEAC women’s basketball is better than the men’s division and all of the SWAC

Going back to the 2001-02 season, only twice (2002-03, 2010-11) have more than three MEAC men‘s basketball teams finished the regular season with winning record. For the SWAC, there has been only one season (2009-10) where the conference found more than three schools playing above average basketball.

How much better are the women during this same time period?


Well, four seasons (2009-10, 2007-08, 2006-07, 2004-05 and 2003-04) the MEAC has had more than a trio of schools with a competitive record. On two occasions (2009-10, 2007-08) the league had six teams conclude the year with more wins than losses.

The SWAC women have somewhat kept pace with their black college counterparts finding three seasons (2006-07, 2004-05 and 2002-2003) where more than three schools had a winning season.

These inconsistencies in records can be explained by analyzing two factors; talent and scheduling (not news to those die-hard SWAC and MEAC basketball followers).

Nearly all HBCU basketball programs and athletic departments are tremendously underfunded compared to schools that have to supplement budgets by playing non-conference “money games” in football and basketball.

For the most part, basketball teams play a murderer’s row of contests against elite BCS conference opponents and mid-majors all on the road at the start of the regular season. This practice kills RPI and winning percentages along the way.

Take for example the non-conference schedule of SWAC leading Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils (10-11, 9-0 SWAC) lost 11 of their first 12 non-conference games to the likes of Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Northwestern.

MVSU’s only non-conference win came at home Nov.25 versus Tennessee State in double overtime.

The same holds true at other HBCU programs where a lack of overall size, length, skill and quality depth are exposed when going against major conference programs.

When studying the schedule of the women’s teams, one can conclude schools tend to schedule winnable non-conference contests. The top ranked schools in the MEAC and SWAC played a total of eight ranked non-conference opponents this season. Top-seeded SWAC and MEAC men’s schools played 11 such foes before the start of conference play.

Another standard bearer for measuring how great conferences are aside from championships, are NCAA tournament appearances and 20-win seasons. Rarely in the history of both leagues since joining the Division 1 level has more than one school made the field of 68 on the men’s side or the field of 64 on the women’s side.

Interestingly enough the SWAC and the MEAC have almost annually produced at least one 20-win school over the last decade.

A total of seven SWAC men’s basketball programs since 2001-02 have won 20 or more games.
A total of 10 MEAC men’s basketball programs have garnered 20 or more wins since 2001-02.

How does that compare to the elite conferences?

In 2011-10, 11 of the 16 Big East men’s basketball teams won 20 or more games.

The bottom line is that neither conference has shown the ability to compete at the Division 1 level. Winning the SWAC or the MEAC is meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Last season SWAC champion Alabama State advanced to the NCAA tournament after going 1-8 in non-conference play and at one point was 6-16. The Hornets, who eventually lost their opening round game to Texas-San Antonio, won 11 of their last 12 games — all in the SWAC, however.

Although Arkansas-Pine Bluff finished the 2010 regular season second behind first-place Jackson State in the conference standings, UAPB began the year 0-11. Yet they won the SWAC tournament championship.

In the 2007-08 season, Coppin State became the first team in NCAA history to reach the NCAA tournament with 20 losses.

As expected, Alabama State, Coppin State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff didn’t win their first round tournament games.

There is one way this issue can be remedied: get better players and coaches. However, that comes with a caveat as explained by The Majority Institute.

In 2007, The Mid-Majority Institute of Basketball Research drew a line across the center of Division I. It was a Red Line. Above it, conferences with an average school athletic budget of $20 million or more (as measured by the U.S. Department of Postsecondary Education). It’s not really an arbitrary line, because we’ve found that over the past three years, the eight richest leagues beat teams in the smaller conferences over 83 percent of the time in 2009-10. Now that is a competitive imbalance.

We realize that introducing a cold, hard cash-related line won’t change the majority of minds, especially those of fans who are ruled by irrational pride. The Red Line isn’t going to end any internet debates; those will rage on, fed by their own little fires. It’s simply an apples-to-apples indicator, a steady unit of measurement that transcends momentary basketball success and can be applied the same way over different seasons. And it always shows one painful reality: the rich win out over the poor. A lot.

According to data complied by the U.S. Department of Postsecondary Education, the SEC (who just so happens to have Kentucky as representative in the Final Four ) had athletic budgets averaging $71.5 million in 2009-10. The MEAC averaged $8.1 million and the SWAC was dead last in the country at $5.1 million. The Southland and Summit leagues averaged $8.8 million when it comes to those athletic budgets.

In a rich man’s game, the SWAC and the MEAC have a long way to go to break even on and off the court.

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