Duke’s unimpressive non-conference schedule bad for the sport

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
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Duke released their non-conference schedule on Wednesday, and while the highlights of the schedule will be the highlights of the non-conference season, there really isn’t all that much to sink your teeth into.

The Blue Devils will square off with Kansas in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in what will likely be the most anticipated non-conference game in 2016. Duke will be the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country while Kansas will likely be in the top five; we have them No. 3.

Duke also squares off with Michigan State, another preseason top ten team, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

But after that?

They play seven games against mid-major or low-major competition with absolutely zero chance of beating the Blue Devils; the spread in all those games will be over 20 points. Their date with Florida in the Jimmy V Classic is better on paper than it will be in person, and their trip to Vegas to play UNLV looked a lot more difficult before the UNLV program imploded.

And then there is the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena, where Duke gets Penn State (meh) in the opener before facing off with either Cincinnati or Rhode Island, both of whom are borderline top 25 teams. That game should be competitive, especially if Duke plays URI and the URI faithful make the hour drive to see the Rams play Duke, but it’s a sad state of affairs when the third or fourth best game that Duke will play in the first six weeks of the season is one that we hope will be competitive.

That’s how it works with college basketball early in the season, and it’s one of the biggest reasons that the sport continues to lose relevance. Less than a third of Duke’s schedule in the first two months of the season is worth watching for diehard college basketball fans, and only two of those games will convince anyone with something better to do than sit on their couch and watch sports to make the effort to see them play. More than half of their schedule comes against completely overmatched opponents.

And this is the norm.

Sure, Kentucky and Kansas and North Carolina may have had some better luck with their marquee games this season than Duke did, but that doesn’t affect the overall trend in college basketball: Too many of the games that get played are blowouts that aren’t worth watching.

You can’t blame Duke for Florida and UNLV being down. And it’s not their fault that the Hall of Fame Tip-Off committee couldn’t land another elite program for that event.

But it is their fault that they play seven games against relative no-names before Christmas, and who is going to tune in to see Duke put a 40 point mollywhopping on Maine or Grand Canyon when we can watch our fantasy football dreams whither away and die along with the rest of America?

(UPDATE: People seem to be taking this as a shot at Duke, and it’s not meant to be, so I’m going to elaborate a bit more on this.

This is not always the case, but generally speaking, the industry standard for high-major programs is to play at least seven of their 13 non-conference games at home. This generates revenue, whether it be making season ticket packages more appealing and easier to sell or profiting off of the food, apparel and parking that sports fans always seem to be spending their money on. Some programs require more than seven games.

This becomes a problem when you look at how Duke scheduled: They play two neutral site games in New York and two in Connecticut. Their trip to Vegas is, technically, a neutral site game, as is their game against Elon in Greensboro. If you bust out your calculator, that means that Duke has six neutral site games on their schedule — not unusual for the Blue Devils — which means that they cannot schedule a home-and-home for this season if the athletic department wants them to play seven non-conference games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And that’s before you consider that the games against Grand Canyon and Marist are given to the Blue Devils by the organizers of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, which is typical for the early season tournaments.

Now imagine that this is happening at all of the visible, high-major programs around the country. No one is going to volunteer to play a road game with getting a home game in return, and with the way that these schedules shake out, it’s impossible for a lot of these programs to actually play true road games.

So what happens is that the low- and mid-major programs willingly accept a big check and a chance to play on national television in exchange for, in all likelihood, taking a whipping on the road.

And so what we’re left with is this situation, which no one can argue is good for the sport of college basketball even if, individually, it is in the best interest of the individual programs.)

If we really want people to pay attention to college basketball outside of the month of March, they need to be provided with something worth paying attention to. That’s true of just two of the 13 games that Duke, the biggest brand and the preseason No. 1 team in the country, announced today.

Anyway, here is Duke’s full schedule:

Nov. 11: Grand Canyon

Nov. 12: TBA

Nov. 15: vs. Kansas (MSG, Champions Classic)

Nov. 19: vs. Penn State (Mohegan Sun Arena, Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off)
Nov. 20: vs. Cincinnati/Rhode Island (Mohegan Sun Arena, Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off)

Nov. 23: William & Mary

Nov. 26: Appalachian State

Nov. 29: Michigan State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)

Dec. 3: Maine

Dec. 6: vs. Florida (MSG for Jimmy V Classic)

Dec. 10: vs. UNLV (Las Vegas)

Dec. 19: Tennessee State

Dec. 21: vs. Elon (Greensboro, N.C.)

*(NOTE: Duke’s release initially included Marist as their Nov. 12th opponent, but they subsequently announced that game had not yet been confirmed.)