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Scheduling improvements won’t occur overnight for the SEC

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Last season was not a particularly good one for the Southeastern Conference on the basketball court. The conference went through one of its worst seasons in recent history, managing to place just three teams in the NCAA tournament field. While the struggles of the league’s premier program (Kentucky) didn’t help matters, the true culprit for the conference was its non-conference scheduling.

While some programs scheduled ambitiously, putting together a slate that was designed to get them ready for conference play and (hopefully) give them a resume worthy of inclusion in the NCAA tournament field, others cobbled together slates that weren’t befitting of a power conference program. And with some of those teams losing games to programs that reside in the lower regions of Division I, the SEC’s computer numbers took a beating.

Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State lost to Troy and Alabama A&M. South Carolina lost to Elon. Texas A&M lost to Southern. Vanderbilt lost to Marist. Georgia lost to Youngstown State. Alabama lost to Mercer and Tulane.

And there were plenty of bad wins. The SEC played 30 games against teams Ken Pomeroy ranked 300th or lower out of 347, with every team but Kentucky playing at least one. Arkansas and LSU each played four 300-level teams, which is a virtual invitation to miss the NCAA tournament. Pomeroy rated five SEC schools between 302 and 344 in non-conference strength of schedule: Mississippi, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.

With that in mind SEC commissioner Mike Slive saw the need to make changes, hiring former NCAA tournament executive Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant and making Mark Whitworth the league’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball (a newly-created position). The conference that has won the last seven national titles in football would now focus on improving its basketball product. And given the way in which some programs have scheduled in recent years, these moves were necessary.

But Rome isn’t built in a day, and a list compiled by ESPN’s Jason King on the ten worst non-conference schedules among power conferences shows that there’s still some work to do in the SEC. Three SEC programs made the list (Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas A&M), but to be fair each has significant question marks to address entering the 2013-14 campaign.

Arkansas has to replace its top two leading scorers (B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell), Mississippi State is in the second year of a massive rebuilding project and Texas A&M lost Elston Turner and Ray Turner (no relation). Those three being called out for their respective non-conference schedules is countered by Kentucky and Florida ranking among the nation’s best, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

The SEC’s scheduling issue isn’t about all 14 members putting together brutally difficult schedules, but rather understanding the impact of their non-conference slates on the entire conference and scheduling accordingly. Accomplish that task and the SEC shouldn’t have to worry about going through seasons like the 2012-13 campaign in the future.

VIDEO: Duke’s Grayson Allen beats No. 7 Virginia at the buzzer

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia sparks come-from-behind win over No. 13 Louisville

Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia (32) goes up for a shot over Boston College’s Idy Diallo (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
(AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
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Demetrius Jackson scored 20 of his 25 points in the first half and Steve Vasturia scored 15 of his 20 points in the final 20 minutes as Notre Dame landed a 71-66 win over No. 13 Louisville on Saturday afternoon.

The Fighting Irish trailed by as many as 11 points early in the second half, but Vasturia’s hot shooting combined with Notre Dame holding Louisville to just 15 points in the final 15 minutes made all the difference.

The Fighting Irish are not as good as they were last season, but they are built in a similar mold. Jackson, as we expected, as become one of the nation’s most dynamic point guards, impossible to slow-down in isolation and ball-screen actions. Steve Vasturia emerging as a legitimate secondary option offensively and Zach Auguste is one of the nation’s most underrated big men and one of the most dangerous as the roll-man in ball-screens.

Combine all of that with a handful of shooters creating space and Bonzie Colson’s emergence as a force on the offensive glass, and Mike Brey once again has one of the nation’s most lethal offensive attacks.

Where they struggle is on the defensive end of the floor, which is what makes the end of Saturday’s win so meaningful. The Irish entered the day ranked 232nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which more or less means they’re as good as a bad mid-major program at keeping their opponents from scoring.

But they don’t have to be great to be able to win games.

They have to be good enough and they have to get important stops.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday.

Whether or not that actually becomes a trend for this group will be something to monitor — it happened for Duke during last year’s NCAA tournament — but the bottom-line is this: Notre Dame does something better than just about anyone else in college basketball, and that’s score the ball.

On the nights they are able to gets some stops, they are going to be able to win some games. In the last eight days, they’ve proven that, beating North Carolina, Clemson on the road and Louisville.

And that makes them dangerous in March.