Scheduling college basketball

The idea for today’s story about college basketball schedules started last winter during chat sessions at Kansas.com. Nobody complained about Wichita State’s schedule in October, when the Shockers were seen as a team coming off two non-winning seasons and desperately in need of victories. Strength of schedule wasn’t an issue. By February, that changed. It became clear WSU’s strength of schedule was an issue for NCAA Tournament hopes, largely because some of the perceived good teams on the schedule tanked and the bad teams turned out to be monstrously bad.

During chat sessions, readers asked, and asked, and asked, why WSU didn’t play better opponents. They know Kentucky isn’t coming to Koch Arena, so they wanted WSU to strengthen its schedule by going on the road to a national power without requiring a return game. As far as last season, it struck me as Monday-morning quarterbacking. WSU’s 2009-2010 schedule was appropriate for a team coming off 11-20 and 17-17 seasons. Going forward, WSU clearly needs to be more picky with its home games. In 2010, all the Shockers needed to do was win.

I decided to try to find out if that no-return strategy could work. Most Missouri Valley Conference schools, WSU included, abhor that notion. There’s a certain amount of pride attached to the argument, in addition to financial and competitive issues. In general, I agree that schools should avoid no-return games. Maybe there is a right time to go on the road with no return, but those right times pop up once every 10 years, not annually. You are who you associate with, and joining the list of schools eager to play guarantee games doesn’t make much sense to me as a regular scheduling strategy.

Some of the info I collected didn’t make the story. Here’s some of it:

  • I looked at every schedule from non-BCS teams with an at-large bid since 2003 – 55 (not counting Conference-USA schools before the 2005-06 season) of them. I started off wanting to categorize games and come to some conclusions about who is playing and where. Getting all spread-sheety, however, didn’t work. Too many hairs need to be split – What’s the significance of New Mexico playing Texas A&M at Houston or George Mason playing at Wake Forest as part of a tournament? – to make it make sense.After going through all those schedules, however, I can tell you teams who make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team rarely play games on the road with no return. Those that do, often do it for budget reasons as much as boosting the RPI.
  • Most of those at-large teams play in tournaments, play high-profile teams at neutral sites, play home-and-homes with BCS schools when possible and play other mid-level opponents.
  • There’s no doubt MVC commissioner Doug Elgin is concerned about scheduling. The MVC hasn’t earned an at-large bid since 2007. That carries significant financial, prestige and competitive implications for the MVC. Elgin and the MVC pointed toward 2010 and 2011 as bounceback seasons. If big things don’t happen in 2011, expect Elgin to push programs harder. One idea is requiring all schools to play in exempt tournaments each season.
  • I often hear about schools needing to schedule like Gonzaga did and play anybody, anywhere. There’s a certain amount of truth to that, but it’s become overblown. The Zags did play no-return games early during their rise (at Kansas, UCLA, Illinois and Arizona) as far as I can tell from the media guide. By the 2003 season, however, that practice stopped. Gonzaga was able to leverage its success into a lot of neutral-court games and continue its success. Being a small, private school, it would not surprise me if Gonzaga had budgetary motivations for scheduling some of those games early this decade. Regardless, it’s good to remember that as soon as Gonzaga could stop scheduling “like Gonzaga,” it did.
  • The biggest surprise during my interviews came when I called Jerry Palm, the owner and operator of CollegeRPI.com. I expected him to tell me playing those games can be some sort of RPI boost. Instead, he said the RPI math tells coaches to avoid no-return games. The reason is simple: Winning is better than losing, and road teams lose roughly 70 percent of the time.
  • When thinking about scheduling, repeat this over and over: Coaches want to win. Road teams lose.
  • Butler assistant coach Matthew Graves helped me a lot during his conversation. He said the Bulldogs bought a team to come to Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time (in his memory) this season. Not buying games, in his mind, can be helpful for the RPI because it forces Butler to play home-and-home series against schools with competitive RPIs. He also said Butler has successfully employed the strategy of holding open a date through the summer and playing hardball. The Bulldogs will open Louisville’s new arena this season and get a reciprocal from the Cardinals. “We held strong,” Graves said. “We eventually got a return game out of it.”
  • Location helps, as I found out from Graves and UNLV director of operations Mike Shepherd (a native of Burlingame and a Kansas State grad). It is easy to fly into Indianapolis and Vegas, which helps entice high-profile opponents. Butler uses Conseco Fieldhouse as a lure on occasion. UNLV uses Vegas’ charms to its advantage. Butler plays several teams, such as Xavier and Ohio State, who can bus to Indianapolis. These are all factors that work against Wichita State in most cases.
  • Bradley coach Jim Les said the MVC-MWC challenge is good deal. However, he said the BCS conferences in challenge series cuts down on the number of those schools willing to go on the road. If Auburn is forced to go to Rutgers, it often isn’t looking for another difficult game.
  • Shepherd said going on the road with no return does carry a bit of a stigma that could be used against a school in recruiting. Would a coach point out programs that go on the road for one game and characterize those programs as less-than-desirable? “That’s a conversation that could happen,” Shepherd said. “People don’t want to be in that position.”
  • The Nevada legislature mandates a game between Nevada and UNLV each season.