As the NCAA Tournament shifts to the Sweet 16, SWAC basketball teams — once again — are notably absent.
The SWAC representatives in the field of 68 — Texas Southern on the men’s side and Southern in the women’s bracket — were eliminated early either by a No. 1 seed in the regional round or in the First Four.
For years, Division I SWAC schools have found themselves embarking on an NCAA Tournament journey with one of the most difficult paths and among the lowest odds to advance past the opening round.
That has been due in large part to a result of being relegated to the 16-seed line in the field.
Dating back to when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams and added the opening round game in Dayton, Ohio and later the First Four, the SWAC has appeared 13 times since 2011 — all as 16 seeds.
While there has been significant criticism that the NCAA Tournament selection committee has unfairly slotted HBCU conferences such as the SWAC in the First Four or directly against one of the tournament’s No. 1 seeds, SWAC Commississioner Charles McClelland doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment.
In his role as vice chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, McClelland suggests that the SWAC could have a better standing in the tournament if the league as a collective were to commit to doing so.
When asked how close he thought the SWAC was to no longer being a one-bid league like the majority of mid-major basketball conferences are, McClelland was blunt.
“We have a long way to go,” he said during a recent interview with longtime Alcorn State broadcaster Charles Edmond.
McClelland candidly pointed to one hurdle being leaguewide non-conference scheduling where schools — because of a need to play games road against Power Five opponents for financial reasons — end up losing most of them by large margins, which ultimately does the SWAC no favor when NCAA Tournament seeding being determined.
Despite the SWAC winning three outings against the Pac-12, the conference overall went 20-113 versus non-SWAC opponents, the second worst of the 32 Division I conferences.
“A lot of it has to do with the schedule,” said McClelland. “We’re not going to get there playing eight, nine, 10, 11 game guarantees. We’re certainly not unless you go out and win those games. It’s mathematically impossible for you to go on the road for 11 games in a row and think that you’re gonna win eight or nine of those games.
‘Going to take a lot of commitment’
Texas Southern, which made the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season after a run as the No. 8 seed in the SWAC tournament, played seven true road games against non-HBCU opponents. In the games against tournament teams such as Kansas, Houston and Auburn, the Tigers didn’t win a single road matchup. They also dropped contests to Wichita State, Samford and San Francisco.
Prior to SWAC play, Texas Southern went 4-9, with wins over North American, Hampton, Arizona State and NAIA Huston-Tillotson.
Combined that poor start with a 7-11 SWAC record, Texas Southern was destined for the First Four after it beat conference co-champion Grambling State in the league championship game.
“Ultimately, we want to be a conference that is not relying on the automatic qualifier,” said McClelland. “We want to be a conference that’s not a perennial 16-seed, but that’s going to take a lot of commitment outside of just want the conference office can do.”
McClelland suggested that to reach the level of other Division I conferences, SWAC schools would need to bolster their academic and athletic support systems as well as funding capabilities. But smart scheduling, he said, would be necessary as it relates to creating competitive balance.
“Everybody doesn’t have 11 or 12-game guarantees. Everybody’s not in the same position,” he said. “But in order for those five or six schools to be able to get to where they need to be, the other five or six schools are going to have to bring their part of it because you can’t enter into conference play with a NET ranking, KenPom ranking, all of these rankings being in the low 100.
“So even the 90s, 80s, and 70s and then start playing conference schools, and it (NET rating) skyrockets. So the bottom six are going to have to make sure that they carry their weight to be able to bring up the top six in order for us to get out of being just an AQ conference.”
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