The Sun Belt Conference men's and women's basketball tournaments will remain in New Orleans for the foreseeable future, but changes are coming — including a move across town to the Smoothie King Center in 2020.
The conference announced Monday sweeping changes to its basketball scheduling and postseason systems. Starting next season, the opening round of the conference tournaments will be held at the home site of the higher seed, meaning just eight teams will reach UNO's Lakefront Arena for the final three rounds.
Then, starting in March 2020, two rounds will be played on campus sites, meaning only the semifinals and championship game will be played in New Orleans — at the Smoothie King Center, home of the New Orleans Pelicans. The conference is marketing the change as a "New Orleans-style Final Four" for the conference. The top two men's and women's seeds will receive byes to the semifinals, ensuring they will play in New Orleans.
The Sun Belt is also changing its conference scheduling format for men's basketball. After the first 16 games of the conference season — five games home and away against divisional opponents and six single games against non-divisional opponents — the teams will be placed into four pods. The top three teams will comprise Pod A, the next three teams Pod B, etc.
The final four games of a 20-game conference schedule are then home-and-away fixtures within the same pod. The overall 20-game record will determine the regular-season championship, but results within the pod will determine seeding for the conference tournament. For example, a team in Pod A cannot be seeded lower than No. 3, but it is possible the regular-season champion would not be the No. 1 seed.
Sun Belt women's basketball teams will continue to play non-divisional, 18-game conference schedules.
Beginning with the 2019-2020 season, the conference's men's basketball teams also will reserve two non-conference dates to play against "peer conference opponents," one home and one away, with an aim of improving non-conference strength of schedules.
The result, the Sun Belt hopes, will be better strengths of schedules and RPIs, meaning semifinals and championship games at Smoothie King Center will have plenty on the line, both in terms of NCAA tournament seeding and at-large bids.
"I applaud the commitment of our president and chancellors, athletic directors and basketball coaches for their willingness to accept the unique concepts that were approved today," Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said in a release. "Not only will these initiatives push our men's and women's basketball success to the next level, but our student-athlete and fan experience will be elevated with our new tournament format and host site at the Smoothie King Center."