A college basketball scheduling idea worth rooting for
There has long been a fundamental difference between college football and college basketball.
College football decision-makers are driven by one principle only: How will I profit from this?
For that reason, the sport went nearly 150 years without any form of playoff system at its highest level. Bowls were plenty profitable and could afford to scratch the right backs.
It’s also the reason behind the initial wave of conference realignments.
Rivalries like Missouri-Kansas, Texas-Texas A&M or West Virginia-Pitt being played annually since the 19th century was no longer of any consequence. Who cares about tradition when you can make bank and not have to pay anybody for the work?!?
College basketball decision-makers aren’t exactly running a charity. But when they make decisions, the question of whether it actually better serves the game as a whole comes into consideration.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim loudly lamented the fact the Orange left the Big East for the ACC. He knew it was about football profits, period.
It didn’t matter that the move hurt Syracuse basketball or college basketball as a whole. It took a group of basketball-first schools to save the conference from total extinction and return it close to its original prominence. But deep down you can bet Boeheim wishes he was never forced to leave.
When college basketball expanded its postseason tournament, it wasn’t some half-hearted increase from 2 teams to 4. It continually evolved, from 8 to 16 to 20-some to 32 to 48 to 64 to 68.
Every one of those expansions — especially the one that introduced us to the First Four concept — created more profit. But they also created a better sport.
These concepts need not be mutually exclusive.
Given college hoops’ track record of self-improvement, there’s reason to be optimistic about a new scheduling concept being floated this week.
A new breed of BracketBusters
CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander revealed Tuesday that 22 conferences are discussing a bold new concept. It builds on the old ESPN BracketBuster concept, which created mid-February nonconference matchups for mid-major teams from 2002-13. (Like so many things, that template was tossed aside during the first wave of realignment.)
Come mid-February, each of leagues would pause conference play for 1 week. Every team would schedule nonconference home and away games during that week.
The fun part of the equation is that no one will know who they are playing until the draw is held at the end of January. Opponents would be evenly matched. The NCAA’s NET rankings or other metrics will be used to create the schedule.
The idea is primarily the brainchild of WAC commissioner Brian Thornton.
“It’s a home and away, regardless of conference affiliation, regardless of ranking, the best teams are playing ‘like’ matchups,” Thornton told Norlander. “A Quad 2 team plays Quad 2 team. It’s merit-based. You earn your way in. … You get two great games you wouldn’t be able to get on your own.”
Thus, you could get an impromptu top-10 or top-20 matchup at a time when the basketball season is usually hitting its pre-tournament lull. And there’s even something in it for last-place teams, who might pick up a rare win over a similarly-rated peer.
B1G will play bystander
If you’re a B1G fan and hate the idea, there’s no need to worry. The Big Ten won’t be in on the ground floor. Along with the ACC, Big 12, Big East, SEC and Pac-12, the Big Ten will be sticking to the regularly-scheduled script during February.
That reality makes it all the more fascinating that Michigan State associate AD Kevin Pauga is among those working behind the scenes to get this off the ground.
There is no tangible benefit for Michigan State. If anything, it might even be detrimental to a Big Ten bubble team.
Take, for instance, Michigan State in 2021. The Spartans snuck into the First Four. But if a mid-major bubble team picks up another couple of Quad 1 wins as a result of this idea, perhaps a future equivalent of that MSU team would be in the NIT.
No college football powerbroker would dream of trying anything potentially detrimental to their program. In college basketball, there’s an administrator actively facilitating it.
And that’s a good thing. College basketball is big enough for a wide range of outcomes to be good for the sport.
The 2022 NCAA Tournament was a perfect example. The ultimate underdog, 15-seed Saint Peter’s, made the Elite 8. Yet the Final Four was the ultimate show of blue bloods — Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Villanova. Both were great for the sport.
Maybe this idea will be such a rousing success that power conferences eventually get in on it. That would allow for the possibility of seeing matchups like the greatest regular-season game ever played — LSU’s 148-141 overtime win over Loyola Marymount in 1990.
If it remains strictly a mid-major thing, that’s fine too. The game itself will be stronger from top to bottom. And that only happens when its leaders actually care.