by Conor Gereg
Enter the 2020-2021 season and you’ll see that the college basketball landscape features many of the nation’s premier basketball leagues taking part in an annual 20 game conference slate. Flashback just a decade ago and it was commonplace for most conferences to play 16 league games. What happened?
Athletic Directors and Conference Commissioners alike grew to understand the value in adding more head to head league games and fewer “buy-games” versus lowly competition, discovering that this formula would bolster nearly every data point used to measure a team, and ultimately, a league’s overall quality. This season, premier basketball leagues like the Pac-12 and Big East will join the likes of the ACC and Big 10 with 20 league games but there remain several formidable basketball conferences that aren’t making the pivot to this new format. Holding to a mere 18 game schedule can still make sense for some and there are a litany of reasons why.
The American Atheltic Conference finished 7th among the 32 Division I basketball leagues with an average NET rating of 94.83. In other words, the mean of each team’s value, in the eyes of the NCAA Evaluation Tool, sat just inside the top-100. This rating trailed the sixth place ACC by over 25 spots (69.27) and had there been a Selection Sunday, the AAC may have limited their chances at seeing the usual handful of bids its accustomed to receiving. Within the AAC, teams like East Carolina (208 in the NET) and Tulane (168) plummeted the résumé s of programs like Houston (20), Wichita State (41), and Cincinnati (51), pulling those at the top of the conference down at the national level. A 20 game conference schedule could inevitably manufacture more matchups against the bottom of the league, making commissioners Mike Aresco’s decision to stand pat at 18 games a sound choice. Aresco and his cognoscenti of advisors would be wise to get creative with remaining schedules, and here I’ll say it: consider a 16 game slate.
Zig When Others Zag: 16 Games with a Regional Flare
A 16 game schedule would allow burgeoning leagues like the AAC to schedule other teams that hail from league’s that feature a strong top of conference that’s maligned by a cadre of schools dwelling at the bottom. For instance, Cincinnati, a fringe bubble team this past March, squared off against East Carolina twice, winning both games by a combined 18 points. But what if Cincinnati only played the Pirates once and instead scheduled in-state power hailing from a similarly situated league like Dayton (3rd in the NET) of the Atlantic-10? Scheduling Dayton would provide the Bearcats with another Quadrant 1 opportunity (they only won two Quadrant 1 games—perhaps the most damning blemish on their tournament hopeful résumé), and in a world of tightening budgets and travel restrictions, scheduling Dayton provides a legitimate opponent who resides just 50 minutes away.
Likewise, a team like Memphis, hosted a quartet of early-season matchups against South Carolina State (329), Alcorn State (324), Jackson State (289) and New Orleans (335). Sure, inflating the win column with cupcakes always helps the optics of a program eager to bring fans through the turnstiles, but getting fat on teams hovering around the 300 NET rank doesn’t do your program any favors (especially when your league schedules Tulane twice on your conference docket). A 16 game schedule frees a team like Memphis to showcase its talent vs local foes like East Tennessee State (36th in the NET) or hell, even UT Chattanooga (153rd in the NET) would bolster Memphis metrics more than playing a second league game against Tulane or ECU.
A 16 game conference slate isn’t outlandish or even unprecedented in today’s game. During Gonzaga’s brief flirtation with the Mountain West, the Zags levered their negotiations with the West Coast Conference to maintain a 16 game league schedule so that the Bulldogs could load up on out of conference competition. The AAC would be wise to allow its top programs to do the same.
Innovative Conference Scheduling
Prior to the start of last season, Conference USA announced a 14-game conference season with an additional 4 games afterward that would pair the league’s teams against one another based on conference standings. This meant the league’s top seeds would get additional games against other top teams in the league, all in an effort to bolster the résumé’s of Conference USA’s NCAA tournament hopefuls. With each team’s appearance in the NCAA tournament worth approximately $1 million per game, getting as many teams into the dance as possible is a mode of fiscal survival for smaller leagues since that money is then shared amongst member institutions.
What if this same approach was applied to the American Conference or the Atlantic 10? An additional matchup of Houston vs Wichita State would do wonders for both programs’ metrics. How about an extra matchup of Dayton vs Richmond prior to the conference tournament in the A-10? An additional headlining bout might assure the league multi-bid exposer it needs to land more schools in The Big Dance, and in turn, more dollars for these schools.
It’s Do or Die for Many
The high-major basketball leagues understand that more games against each other means fewer opportunities for teams from lesser conferences to knock them off, eventually choking off leagues like The American, Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference, Mountain West (who will expand to 20 conference games in 2022-2023), and SoCon. Schools outside the college basketball power structure don’t have to genuflect to the sports’ conference heavyweights, instead, an amalgamation of creative scheduling and renewed regional rivalries might just be enough to keep many of these programs thriving in March.