We have a start date! (HV Weekly: 9/20/2020)
The challenges and incentives for non-conference scheduling.
Welcome back to the Hoop Vision Weekly!
We inched forward to a college basketball season this week with a new start date being set for November 25th.
Now that we have a little more information on the season, we are gearing up for our Hoop Vision PLUS preseason coverage. More specifics on that soon, but we’re excited to jump back into team previews and general college basketball analysis.
Our preseason content schedule will be sent out in a separate email later this week.
— — —
Before we get into today’s piece on non-conference scheduling, a quick look back at some of our favorite work from the spring and summer.
Favorite HV Weekly Newsletters
The Truth About Transfers — How "up-transfers" fit and produce at their new programs.
“Time and Score!” — How game context changes shot selection
5-Out Offensive Concepts — What 5-out teams like Alabama, Creighton, and Nebraska run offensively
HV+ Summer Tutorials
For full access to the tutorial and the deep archive of HV+ research, join Hoop Vision Plus today for $10/month or $100/year.
The world of non-conference scheduling
Last week, the Division I Council elected to move the season back to November 25th. While getting a start date was an important first step, it’s clear when talking to people in the industry (both privately and publicly) just how much of a mess things are right now — with some calling it a “shit show.”
Even in a normal year, non-conference scheduling can be the Wild West, with every program focused on their own self interests. That’s just the reality in a sport that gives autonomy to its members; each major program determines who, when, and where they play for the first half of the season.
The scheduling process isn’t as structured as you think
One of my favorite parts of college basketball Twitter is the mass confusion in Jon Rothstein’s mentions any time he tweets the “MTE” acronym. Generally speaking, the public is uninformed on the ins and outs of scheduling.
The usual misconception is that college basketball scheduling operates similar to football — where games are scheduled years and years in advance — and that athletic directors themselves play a prominent role.
The basketball scheduling world — with some possible exceptions at the very top of the sport — is much more unstructured. Even in normal times, some teams will go deep into the summer with games still needing to be filled.
It can get even trickier following a head coaching change. After my first season working at New Mexico State, we found ourselves needing to fill several games, but we didn’t even have the typical staffers (assistant coaches) hired yet to work on filling them. As a result, there was an intermediary period where I actually spent about a month trying to find potential games.
With no prior experience, I learned that the process was shockingly informal. There were two main message boards where desperate teams post their open dates, financial constraints, and contact information. But beyond that, scheduling is often done by simply picking up the phone and calling your network.
Everyone has their own incentives
The reasons vary, but the majority of college basketball teams are actually not scheduling to optimize their NCAA Tournament chances or seeding.
On the lowest end of the food chain, there’s a segment of teams that schedule games in order to fund their athletic programs. For appropriate monetary compensation, these teams are willing to travel all over the country for two months to get blown out.
The guarantee money earned by these low-majors usually goes straight to the entire athletic department — funding other sports besides just basketball. So other amenities are often negotiated into the contract to “cheat” the system. Most commonly, that means hotels and travel are covered by the high-major opponent.
But, it can get weird. I had a program ask us for $5,000 worth of Muscle Milk. We were actually prepared to give it to them, but the game fell through.
For programs who aren’t as financially constrained, simply finding as many wins as possible might be the scheduling priority. There isn’t much upside in strategically attempting to game the quadrant system — risking a worse record in the process — if you won’t be in contention for an at-large bid.
In essence, scheduling weaker opponents might be the safer move for job security.
There are dozens of other factors incentivizing individual coaches and programs to schedule in a variety of ways. A few examples:
Contracts. Some coaches have bonuses built into their contracts that reward scheduling a certain way. Dan Monson’s old contract was one of the most egregious
Style of play. Some coaches might look to schedule a lower-level opponent that plays a similar style to an opponent coming up later in their schedule
Even in normal years, it can be a mess
Beyond just deciding who you want to play, you have to find a date that works for both sides.
At New Mexico State, we played a home-and-home every season with both New Mexico and UTEP. But while we knew those four games were going to happen, agreeing on dates could be a convoluted process. One team might want to play at home while their students are in session, the other (obviously) would prefer to play away during vacation.
As a scheduler, you find yourself looking at what works best for you and what works worst for your opponent in certain situations. Ultimately there must be a compromise, but it’s rare to compromise without an argument or two. On top of that, any late schedule change can have a domino effect on multiple different games and programs.
Of course these programs and coaches have every right to be self-interested, but that brings us to the challenges for this season…
How will things change for this season?
Various media outlets have brainstormed some type of communal scheduling for the greater good of college basketball this season. While the communal model would undoubtedly help low-majors, it completely conflicts with the realities of how scheduling works.
It appears that most of the prominent tournaments are going to be rescheduled in new “controlled environments” (aka bubbles).
For an ACC or Big Ten program in one of those three-game tournaments (MTE’s), they now already have 23 out of 27 games filled — assuming a 20-game conference season. The ACC-Big Ten challenge fills one of the remaining slots, leaving very little flexibility remaining.
With the reduced schedule and zero ticket revenue, there is almost no incentive for a high-major to play lower competition — and certainly not to pay them money for it in the process.
Of course, there are always exceptions. John Calipari was able to land his son’s team — Brad Calipari is a senior guard for Detroit — three non-conference games.
Last week, Jeff Goodman released a podcast featuring a conversation between two low-major schedulers and two high-major schedulers. The tension between the two sides was apparent — and really highlighted the current state of college basketball.
When asked if Xavier would be keeping any of the mid/low majors previously on the schedule, Mario Mercurio admitted it was unlikely…aside from one game.
“The one after the 25th is Greg Kampe in Oakland, so you can imagine I’m keeping that game. That’s my guy, he wants to come down here for Skyline Chili, so I’ll cut [Cincinnati] and [Wake Forest] for Greg.”
The Skyline Chili comment is — of course — a joke, but it’s the perfect summation for how the scheduling world works. Without any governing authority in non-conference scheduling, it is exceedingly difficult for the sport to find a sustainable path for as many of the 357 teams as possible. Programs are going to continue to look out for themselves and their closest friends (or family).
The good news is there are solutions in the works.
Las Vegas and Indianapolis have emerged as potential sites for teams to enter a bubble-like environment to play multiple non-conference games. Those can help allow mid/low majors to pool resources and work together.
But the financial viability — one of the early bubble proposals includes a four-game package for between $50K and $70K depending on travel party size — for the teams that are already losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in buy-game revenue is a concern. It’s finances and testing availability that will help determine just how many non-conference games are scheduled this season.
More NBA Playoff Analysis
We had a couple more pieces of NBA analysis this week on Twitter and YouTube.
First, we explained all 13 of Nikola Jokic’s assists from game seven against the Clippers. Come for the clickbait thumbnail, stay for Jokic’s patience against the double-team.
Next, a tweet on the Miami Heat 2-3 zone.