The Big Ten seems as if it is destined to follow the ACC down the path of 20 conference games in the near future.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN earlier this week that the conference is having discussions about whether or not to expand the league schedule, and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is quoted in the story as saying that “I don’t think there’s any question it’s going to happen.”
This comes of the heels of the ACC announcing that they will be expanding to a 20 game conference schedule starting in the 2019-20 season.
On the surface, this does have some appeal. This will push the start of conference play up closer to Christmas and almost certainly before the turn of the calendar, meaning that the meat of college basketball’s regular season will begin a week earlier for what is arguably the two most relevant and best conferences in the country. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for college basketball to try and carve out a larger slice of college football’s bowl season.
The problem is that a 20 game league schedule only makes it more difficult for high major programs to challenge themselves in non-conference play.
There are two factors at play here. For starters, more conference games means more potential losses, which makes it that much for difficult to convince coaches that may need to get to 20 wins to save their job (or hit an incentive in their contract) to schedule any quality out of conference opponents. But what will be more difficult to navigate is the requirements put on programs by athletic directors that mandate a certain number of home games during a season. A lot of revenue is generated for the athletic department by playing games at home, and most ADs require a specific number of home games on the schedule to bring in that revenue; and AD’s job isn’t just to get make their school’s sports teams competitive, it is to make sure the athletic department operates in the black or as close to it as possible.
The number that is required differs from school to school, but the industry standard tends to be 16 homes games for the entire season. With an 18 game league schedule, nine are played at home, meaning that seven of the 13 non-conference games would have to be played at home to reach that quota. If there are 20 league games, 10 are played at home and six of the 11 non-conference games would have to be home games.
Now take Michigan State, for example. The Spartans are almost always going to be playing in an exempt event in November in addition to playing in the Champions Classic and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In a year where their exempt event has eight teams — like the Maui Invitational or the PK80 tournament in Portland this year — and the Spartans are given a road game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, their spot in the Champions Classic means that they suddenly are put into a position where their other six non-conference games must be played in the Breslin Center to hit 16 home games.
They aren’t the only power conference school that will feel that schedule crunch, but other high profile programs (Kentucky, UNC, Duke, UCLA, etc.) will feel it as well, meaning home-and-home series between those programs will be less and less likely.
It also makes it that much more unlikely that teams from leagues like the ACC or the Big Ten would ever challenge themselves with a road game against anyone outside of their league, let alone a road game against a mid-major program.
So while it is a good thing to create more conference rivalry games and to reduce, as much as possible, the unbalanced schedules of the bloated power conferences in a post-realignment world, the toll that it will take on the non-conference schedule — further removing high-profile non-conference games from on-campus venues, where college basketball is meant to be played — may make this decision a net-negative in the long run.