Much was made of the Southeastern Conference's decision during the offseason to move away from the SEC East and SEC West divisional standings and have all 12 teams fight for position in a single league. The schedule remained unbalanced with each team still playing a divisional-heavy schedule, but teams were no longer rewarded for just being better than the five other teams on its side of the division. Instead, each team competed in the standings with every school in the league.
As a result of how the league standings are now determined, this week's SEC Tournament looks vastly different than it has in previous years. For the first time since 1992 when the SEC formed two divisions, the league did not reward the top two teams from the SEC East and the SEC West with first round byes. Instead, the league rewarded the top four overall teams in the SEC standings with byes. The remaining eight teams were also seeded based on overall finish in the league standings.
Gone are the days of the third-place team from the West playing the sixth-place team from the East in the first round.
The two teams most positively impacted by the new seeding procedure this year are Vanderbilt and Florida. In years past the two would have finished third and fourth in the SEC East standings, respectively, and been forced to play on Thursday. Meanwhile, Alabama and Mississippi State would have received first round byes, despite finishing with the fifth and sixth-best records, respectively, in the league.
"How unjust would it be for the teams in what was the East to be playing on Thursday when they deserved to get a bye? So good for us and Tennessee and Florida that they changed that and they rewarded the teams with the best record, and gave them the byes because that is how it should be," Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings said.
Until the changes to the 2012 SEC Tournament, there were 20 seasons when the league standings were divided. There were many years when one side of the division appeared stronger than the other, and additional years when the two appeared equal.
But in recent years, the pendulum seemed to have swung to the East.
In the last five seasons, the third-place finisher in the SEC has posted a better record than either the first and/or second-place team(s) in the SEC West four times. The only exception was 2008-09 when two teams finished 10-6 atop the East and Auburn finished in second place in the West with a 10-6 record.
"I think that is the most fair way," Vanderbilt senior forward Jeffery Taylor said of the new tournament seeding. "I think the East has been pretty dominant the last couple of years so it is a really fair layout and I like how it worked out."
The teams at the top of the East have had better records than those at the top of the SEC West four of the last five years, but a look over the 20-year history of divisions shows an even larger trend.
Ten times during the 20 seasons, a team from the East would have received a first-round bye over a team from the West had the tournament seeding been as it is in 2012. On two of those occasions - 2008 and 2010 - Vanderbilt would have been the recipient of a bye.
Here is a closer look:
20 Seasons of Division Play (1992-2011) If the SEC Tournament was seeded as it is in 2012
- 10 Years - East team would have received a first-round bye over a team from the West
- 3 Years - West team would have received a first-round bye over a team from the East
- 7 Years - Top two teams in East and West would have received a bye
Here are the seasons and the teams from the East that would have received a bye:
2003 (Georgia & Tennessee)
2004 (South Carolina)
2007 (Tennessee & Kentucky)
2010 (Tennessee & Florida)
Here are the seasons and the teams from the West that would have received a bye:
Here are the seasons where the byes would have remained the same:
1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2009
New Seeding Changes Vanderbilt's Draw
The new seeding procedure not only provides Vanderbilt with a bye in 2012, but it also allows the Commodores to avoid seeing No. 1 Kentucky until a possible meeting in Sunday's championship.
If divisional standings were still in existence, Vanderbilt's road to the SEC Championship would look much different. Vanderbilt would not receive a bye and would open the SEC Tournament Thursday against Auburn with the winner playing Mississippi State on Friday night. Should Vanderbilt have won both of its games, the Commodores would then face either Kentucky, Georgia or LSU in Saturday's semifinals.
However, with the change in how the tournament is seeded, Vanderbilt now receives a first-round bye and will play the winner of the Georgia and Mississippi State matchup on Friday. If Vanderbilt wins its quarterfinal game, it will play either Tennessee, Auburn or Ole Miss in the semifinals. Kentucky is on the opposite side of the bracket.
Asked Tuesday what he likes best about Vanderbilt's draw, Stallings was quick to reference the absence of Kentucky on the Commodores' half of the bracket.
"The thing that I like most about the matchups is that we wouldn't have to play Kentucky until Sunday," Stallings said.
Getting to avoid facing a rematch with Kentucky until the championship is something not lost on the players as well.
"I think anybody would not want to play Kentucky until the championship if they had to," Taylor said. "They are the No. 1 team in the country and rightfully so. I think it worked out well for us."
But in order to even see the Wildcats, Vanderbilt would possibly need to avenge a few regular season losses to sixth-seeded Mississippi State and second-seeded Tennessee. Getting another crack at teams that have defeated the Commodores this season is something that motivates the team.
"As a competitor, you would want to play against the team that beat you," Taylor said. "(Mississippi State) came in here and beat us in overtime, so that would definitely be a fun rematch. But if we get Georgia, that would be fun to."
Vanderbilt may get that opportunity to avenge a loss in the postseason, but it very well may not. Either way, the bottom line is that it is March and every team is playing for its season. It doesn't matter what the letters across the front of a jersey read when the ball is tossed into the air, but it may matter that a team has one fewer game to play in order to reach its goal.