On Tuesday, Georgetown released the worst non-conference schedule that I’ve seen in 10 years of covering college basketball.
It’s atrocious. By one metric, it’s the second-worst non-conference schedule in the KenPom era, which dates all the way back to 2002. They play seven teams that ranked 320th or lower in KenPom last season. That’s hard to do.
But, as I wrote yesterday, it’s happening for a reason: the Hoyas are trying to stack up wins in a year where new head coach Patrick Ewing knows they aren’t going to be very good. It’s better to finish around .500 in a year where you go 3-15 in the Big East than it is to play a tough schedule and win just eight games. In three years, when it comes time to decide whether or not the Hoya legend should be on the hot seat, no one is going to be thinking about how tough the schedule was. They’re going to be referencing his win-loss record.
Gary Parrish over at CBS Sports wrote a similar column, but he made a salient point that needs to be addressed: This kind of scheduling is at the core of what’s ailing college basketball.
Considering just how many Division I basketball teams there are, the number of relevant college basketball games during November and December are miniscule. There are a few exempt events around Thanksgiving, events that are played at neutral sites in exotic locales with almost no one in the crowd, and maybe two dozen marquee games played between top 25 teams, but the overwhelming majority of games that are played prior to the start of the conference season by the best teams in the country are completely non-competitive.
Part of it is so that these coaches can point to their streak of winning 20 games in a season to try and earn an extension. But the more relevant part of it is because the university needs to sell season ticket packages; generally speaking, athletic directors require college basketball coaches to schedule seven or eight home games, and the only way to get that many home games when every high major program in the country is dealing with this same issue is to load up on buy games.
In other words, pay a team that has no chance of winning a game in your building somewhere between $50,000-$100,000 to fly into town, taking a beating and then head home, check in hand.
Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Louisville each did that six times last season. Kansas four times. Michigan State seven times. We can go on and on.
That’s the way that the system works, and it’s where the idea of “exploitation” within college athletics really comes into play.
I don’t love using that word in regards to some of the unfair rules and operating procedures of the NCAA. I believe many college athletes on scholarship are getting a pretty good deal. I also believe that many, maybe even a majority, are getting less than they deserve. I can say that I believe a full cost-of-attendance scholarship, a sizable stipend and the removal of amateurism rules is what would actually be fair while saying that there’s enough value in getting a college education paid for to make “exploitation” too strong in most cases.
But when it comes to buy games?
It’s uncomfortable on both sides of the aisle.
On the one hand, the players on the power conference rosters are playing relatively value-less games because their school needs to be able to provide a supply for season ticket holders to spend their money on, which means there’s enough of a budget to pay a visiting team $75,000 but not enough of a budget to pay the players wearing the home team’s uniform for their play?
On the other hand, the low- and mid-major programs across the country turn their fall into a barnstorming tour designed to generate funding for the athletic department throughout the year. Many of the teams that have the wildest non-conference schedules come from notoriously under-funded HBCU programs. Take a look at the non-conference schedule Texas Southern will be playing this season:
Nov. 11 @ Gonzaga
Nov. 13 @ Washington State
Nov. 16 @ Ohio State
Nov. 18 @ Syracuse
Nov. 21 @ Kansas
Nov. 24 @ Clemson
Nov. 30 @ Oakland
Dec. 2 @ Toledo
Dec. 11 @ Oregon
Dec. 14 @ Baylor
Dec. 16 @ Wyoming
Dec. 18 @ TCU
Dec. 23 @ BYU
If the checks for those 13 games average $77,000, an entirely plausible number, then Mike Davis will have generated $1 million for his university in 42 days.
And if you think that’s bad, how about this: Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson, who routinely plays one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, has a clause in his contract that says he gets a cut of all of those game checks.
Now look, this isn’t all bad for the players. Playing at Gonzaga or at Syracuse is probably much better than playing home games in front of, what, a couple thousand people? It’s an opportunity to prove themselves in front of pro scouts — and college coaches they may be able to transfer up and play for — and given the rise of online classes, they may not actually be missing all that much school at the end of the day. There is also an issue for programs in the midwest and mountain regions, as there simply aren’t all that many potential opponents locally. As one former HBCU assistant told NBC Sports, “as long as they aren’t cutting corners on travel they probably eat better on the road than they do at home.”
But the larger point remains the same.
Davis and his team just spent six weeks on the road, generated hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the players got … a chance to prove themselves on a bigger and better food than they eat at home while their head coach gets to pocket some of that money?
And it’s bad for the game of college basketball.
The question is whether or not it is fixable, and I just don’t know if it is.
Should Division I cut the bottom 16-20 conferences? Does it make sense for Abilene Christian to be competing at the same level as Duke? But if the NCAA does eliminate those leagues and create a Division I-AA, would it ruin the charm of the NCAA tournament?
What if the power conferences instead opted to expand their conference schedules to, say, 24 or 26 games? That would certainly increase the number of relevant games early in the season, and in the leagues with more than 12 teams — which is every high major conference not named the Big 12 or the Big East — it would create more balanced schedules, but then you run into the issue of playing home conference games during December, when these schools are in the middle of finals and the students are not on campus. What is conference play in college basketball without a rowdy student section?
There is no easy answer.
But that doesn’t mean that the way the current system is set up makes sense.