Before College of Charleston played George Mason University last week, Cougars basketball coach Bobby Cremins said he was jealous of George Mason's league, the Colonial Athletic Association.
"I'd love to see the Southern Conference become something like that," Cremins said. "That should be the goal of our conference. We use them as a model."
The source of Cremins' envy? The three teams the CAA sent to the NCAA tournament last season, and the four at-large bids the Colonial has landed in the last six seasons. That's four more at-large bids than the SoCon has earned it its entire history dating back to 1939, when the NCAA tournament started.
The SoCon has never sent more than one team -- the tournament champion, who earns an automatic bid -- to the Big Dance, which expanded to a field of 68 teams last year.
Is the SoCon forever fated to be a one-bid league? Or, as Cremins suggests, are there things the conference can learn from multi-bid mid-major leagues like the CAA?
"I've been very vocal with our membership that we've got to make men's and women's basketball a higher priority," said John Iamarino, the SoCon's commissioner since 2009. "The quickest way to get a positive brand for a conference like ours is in men's basketball, and it's the only way to reap some financial rewards."
As a league, the SoCon's 12 members can't hope to compete any time soon with the CAA's 12 in enrollment or budget. With an average enrollment of 20,737 -- more than twice that of the SoCon's 8,361 -- CAA schools have the size of some BCS schools without the commitment to major college football.
That's one reason five CAA schools were able to spend more than $2 million per year on men's basketball, with an average budget of $1.81 million.
SoCon schools, meanwhile, spend an average of $1.18 million on basketball, led by Davidson at $1.49 million and College of Charleston at $1.47 million, according to figures from 2010.
But there is one area in which the SoCon could more quickly catch up with the CAA.
"We need to focus on the way we schedule," said Elon coach Matt Matheny.
Strength of schedule
A team's schedule has a direct impact on the Ratings Percentage Index, which the NCAA uses to rank basketball teams. Last season, when the CAA landed three teams in the NCAA tournament, it was ranked No. 10 among 32 Division I conferences in RPI. The SoCon, which got one team in, was No. 19.
A look at league schedules reveals some differences.
SoCon teams, for a variety of reasons, schedule more games way up and way down the college basketball ladder. CAA teams are able to schedule more games against teams at their own mid-major level.
For example, as league play began in earnest this week, SoCon squads had played 37 games against teams from the six BCS "power" conferences, going 5-32. Colonial teams had played just 22 games against such teams, with a 3-19 record.
Davidson's win over then-No. 13 Kansas and Wofford's upset of Wake Forest -- not to mention College of Charleston's wins over Tennessee and Clemson -- match any CAA victories this season.
On the other hand, SoCon teams have played 20 games against non-Division I teams, dotting schedules with mystery teams such as Warren Wilson, Lindsey Wilson, Spalding and Virginia-Wise, an NAIA team that's played three SoCon squads this season.
The CAA? It's 12 teams have played just one game against a lower-division squad.
That must change, said Elon's Matheny.
"I feel like (the CAA) has made huge strides in the way they handle non-conference scheduling," Matheny said. "They are a league that now buys games and plays a lot less guarantee games on the road, and their non-conference schedules are completely different than the majority of teams in the SoCon. We need to study what the Colonial has done and see if we can mirror that in some way."
CAA programs must ask the league for a waiver to schedule any non-Division I squad. In the SoCon, teams must request a waiver only if they play more than two lower division teams.
"We've talked about scheduling issues and how that impacts the RPI rankings," Iamarino said. "But we've not gotten to the point where we have created a mandatory format. I don't personally think that's in the best interest of each program."
But Iamarino does review each team's schedule, and said teams expected to contend are encouraged to "schedule up and put some good non-conference opponents on there." Conversely, a schedule with three or four lower-division opponents draws scrutiny from the league office.
"With one program this year, I had a long conversation with their athletic director about it," said Iamarino, who declined to name the team. "I just felt it was an upper echelon program that was not testing itself sufficiently."
Iamarino said that with generally bigger arenas and higher attendance, the CAA can better afford to "buy" home games. CAA teams averaged 3,605 fans per game last year, topping out at 7,745 at Old Dominion and 6,645 at Virginia Comonwealth. SoCon teams drew 2,369 fans per game, led by 4,261 at UNC Greensboro and 4,067 at College of Charleston.
"That's an issue for us," he said. "It's hard for us to make up for lost revenue if we don't take guarantee games. I'd love for us not to play as many guarantee games as we do. When you have large arenas and draw really well, you can buy people instead of being bought."
And success breeds financial success. Davidson's run to the Elite Eight in 2008 meant $4.5 million to the SoCon over a six-year period, Iamarino said. The Final Four trip by Virginia Commonwealth is worth $12.6 million to the CAA over six years. That's helped CAA member Towson to build a new arena, with Old Dominion and Delaware planning new practice facilities.
Iamarino said the SoCon is building a fund to help league teams afford to accept bids to lesser postseason tournaments. "Some coaches have had to decline those bids in the past," he said.
The bottom line? Winning, says College of Charleston's Cremins.
It's tough," said Cremins. "I still feel, at the end of the day, there could be room for two (Southern Conference teams in the NCAA tournament). But it's going to take a lot of work."