College basketball coaches often compare assembling a schedule to putting together a jigsaw puzzle – but there's one major problem with that premise.
Putting together the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle is the easiest part of the process. Arranging the last games of a college basketball schedule requires almost as much patience and foresight as recruiting a five-star prospect.
This marks the time of year when basketball programs across the country start completing their 2009-10 schedules. That makes college basketball quite different from football, where the schedules are planned years in advance.
"We know our major football opponents through 2020, I think, but from a basketball standpoint, it's historically done more year to year," Tennessee associate athletic director John Currie said.
Conference games take up about two-thirds of each team's schedule. Setting up the rest of the schedule is a year-round procedure that often doesn't get finished until the beginning of summer. Most programs have an assistant coach or an assistant athletic director as the point man for the scheduling process, though the head coach generally has final approval.
A majority of schools only have a few games left to schedule, but those are the toughest games to fill because every team is seeking the same thing.
"Everyone wants to play at home – and someone has to play on the road," Siena assistant coach Adam Chaskin said. "It's somewhat like a game of chicken. Some people are willing to wait longer than others to get what they want. Some people are nervous about getting it done quickly."
We decided to take a closer look at the scheduling process by speaking to representatives from schools at each of college basketball's three levels. Tennessee is a major-conference team that played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country this past season. Siena is a mid-major team that has advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons. Morehead State plays in a low-major conference and won an NCAA tournament play-in game this season.
This marks the first part of an ongoing series on scheduling. We'll talk to representatives from each of the three schools again in a few weeks, then one last time after their schedules are completed.
Tennessee: High risk, high reward?
As Tennessee endured a midseason slump this past season, the Volunteers hoped their grueling schedule would help them out on Selection Sunday. The Vols instead got stuck with a No. 9 seed despite playing what collegerpi.com said was the toughest non-conference schedule in the country.
Tennessee's postseason disappointment isn't changing the Vols' strategy as they prepare for the 2009-10 season. Tennessee again will play a demanding non-conference schedule that sets the Vols apart from most major-conference teams.
The first thing you notice on Tennessee's schedule is the big names. The Vols play host to Kansas and travel to Memphis and USC. But the most distinguishing characteristic of Tennessee's schedule might be what's missing: patsies.
The Vols played only one team (Louisiana-Lafayette) this past season that finished with an RPI outside the top 200. No other program in the country played only one team from outside the top 200; Tennessee's SEC rivals played an average of 6.6 games against non-Division I teams or teams outside the top 200.
"You've got to play some 'guarantee' games," said Currie, referring to the practice of guaranteeing a lesser team a payday in exchange for a home game that likely will result in a victory. "But when you play games against teams with RPIs in the 300s or the 270s or 280s, they don't help your team get better because your guys see it as a night off. And they really hurt you so bad in the RPI and in getting ready for the season in general that we want to stay away from them.
Not too many high-major programs are willing to go to a team from a mid-major conference and play a true road game, but our guys are willing to do it ... Our guys are going to have to go on the road eight times in the SEC and play in tough places. Why not get ready for that?
— Tennessee associate athletic director John Currie
"If we're going to play a team from a mid-major or low-major conference, rather than getting the team that finished 10th, [we try to] get the team that finished first, second or third."
Tennessee found many of those programs within its state. And unlike most major-conference programs, Tennessee isn't afraid to play some of those mid-major teams away from home.
The Vols arranged a five-year contract with Middle Tennessee that called for three games in Knoxville; Tennessee won 76-66 at Middle Tennessee this past season and plays the Blue Raiders again next season in Nashville, about 30 miles from Middle Tennessee's campus. The Vols also won 76-70 at Chattanooga during the 2007-08 season and squeaked past Belmont (which is in Nashville) at home in December.
"We've been able to do some more creative things that are, quite frankly, a little riskier for Tennessee but are really good for basketball in our state and region and good for us ultimately," Currie said. "Not too many high-major programs are willing to go to a team from a mid-major conference and play a true road game, but our guys are willing to do it because it makes sense in the context of basketball in our state and in terms of getting our guys ready.
"Our guys are going to have to go on the road eight times in the SEC and play in tough places. Why not get ready for that by going to [Middle Tennessee at] Murfreesboro or Chattanooga in addition to a Kansas?"
Tennessee will face two more in-state opponents next season when it hosts Ohio Valley Conference runner-up Austin Peay and Atlantic Sun champion East Tennessee State. The Vols also like to schedule traditional powers, which explains the home-and-home series with Kansas.
The Vols also like to play in an early season tournament at a neutral site. Tennessee finished second to Gonzaga in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., last year and will play in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands next season.
"The old 'get to 20 wins and you're in [the tournament]' is over," Currie said. "That doesn't exist anymore. You're much better off from a positioning standpoint for the tournament – and also in preparing your team – to play a challenging schedule. And that's what's fair to your fans."
Currie works on putting the schedule together pretty much all year long and likes to have it finished at least by the start of the summer to give the university's ticket office and marketing department plenty of advance notice. Tennessee is a few games away from completing its 2009-10 schedule.
"Team A might be really looking for a home game this year to start a series," Currie said. "Team B wants to start a series also but also really wants to start at home. How do you find a team with a home slot and a team with an away slot?"
Siena: Searching for home games
Advancing beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons certainly has helped Siena's name recognition and recruiting ability, but it hasn't made it any easier for the Saints to design a schedule.
The Saints are struggling to find fellow mid-majors who want to play them, and arranging home games has proved particularly difficult.
"A different group of people want to play us," Chaskin said. "A lot of mid-majors don't want to play us. The upper-level schools now want to play us, but they don't want to play here. Some schools are offering us guarantees to come play at their place."
Siena agreed to play at Pittsburgh and Kansas this past season, road trips that funded the Saints' preseason tour of Europe. But the Saints are more interested in trying to set up home-and-home series with teams instead of hitting the road for a big payday.
The Saints have scheduled home games with Albany and Saint Joseph's for next season, and Siena also plans to play a preseason tournament that will include a home game with a mid-major program. Chaskin still would like to add at least two more non-conference home games and wants at least one of them to come against an "upper-tier opponent."
The Saints won't get a home game this year from the ESPN "BracketBusters" event; Siena played host to Northern Iowa in a "BracketBuster" game this season and must return the favor with a regular-season trip to Northern Iowa next season. Siena will have a "BracketBuster" road game against an opponent that will be determined during the season. The Saints also are playing at Tennessee State as a payback for a home game from the 2006-07 season. That leaves Chaskin needing to schedule a handful of games.
"It's a hassle," Chaskin said. "It requires patience and diligence in regard to constantly making phone calls and sending emails. I try to be extremely honest in the whole process. I tell people exactly where I stand.
"Unfortunately, a lot of guys in the profession try to string you along. There might be eight teams they have no interest in scheduling and two they're deciding between, but they'll string everyone along to keep their options open."
He hopes to finish the schedule by mid-June, but that's not a strict deadline. He didn't complete the 2008-09 schedule until July because the Pittsburgh game was moved to accommodate ESPN, forcing him to shuffle the dates of some other games. One year, he didn't schedule the last game until September.
Chaskin won't have much trouble scheduling those last few road games, but finding a few more home games could prove troublesome.
"We have a season-ticket base just like every school does," Chaskin said. "In addition to the conference schedule, I always try to get at least five non-conference home games. I've always been able to up to this point, and I hopefully will be able to continue to do that."
Morehead State: Balancing it out
Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall likes to design his team's schedule instead of leaving that responsibility to an assistant. That left him with nobody else to blame for a 2008-09 schedule that forced the Eagles to play away from home nearly two-thirds of the time.
"With the schedule I put together this past year, I should have been fired," Tyndall quipped.
There's not much chance of that happening, since Tyndall led Morehead State to its first NCAA tournament appearance in a quarter-century. Morehead State went 20-16 despite playing just 13 home games.
Now that he's about to begin his third season as Morehead State's coach, Tyndall said he finally is on the verge of having a more balanced schedule, though the NCAA tournament appearance might hinder that quest.
"Next year will be my first time in my three years that it's pretty favorable or at least conducive to what you'd want with a home-and-away schedule," Tyndall said. "To be perfectly candid, after the season we've had, it will make it even more difficult to get people to start home-and-home series with us."
Tyndall isn't the only one who would like to see Morehead State play a more balanced schedule. Morehead State is in the Ohio Valley Conference, and the league is about to demand it.
Starting in the 2010-11 season, the OVC will require that its teams play at least as many home games as true road games. The league also won't allow any of its members to play more than two "guarantee" games.
"We're hoping that eventually we can have a special year where a team that won 24-26 games and didn't win the conference tournament would still have a chance to get an [NCAA] at-large bid, like the Sun Belt did a couple of years ago," Tyndall said.
That new rule will prevent Morehead State from having more schedules similar to the one it just faced. The Eagles played four guarantee games this past season: Drake, Vanderbilt, Louisville and Illinois State. Tyndall said that quartet of games brought the Morehead State athletic department about $210,000.
Because teams from low-major conferences are expected to lose those guarantee games, they often make up for it by arranging likely home victories over Division II opponents. Tyndall said the Eagles typically pay about $3,000 to $5,000 to a Division II opponent visiting Morehead State, while his school can make $70,000 to $80,000 by traveling to a high-major school such as Louisville or Vanderbilt. Under the new OVC rule, members will be allowed to schedule one game against a non-Division I opponent for every guarantee game they play against a major-conference power.
Morehead State typically gets plenty of requests from high-major programs offering a big payday, but the Eagles are not receiving quite as many calls now that they're coming off an NCAA tournament appearance.
"Certainly teams want to bring in a quality opponent, but they also want to get [what] they think is almost a sure win," Tyndall said. "We're returning four of our five starters. Whoever we play in [a guarantee] game will be a heavy favorite, but some might say playing a team coming off a 20-win season and returning four of five starters wouldn't be their first choice."
That hasn't stopped Tyndall from filling out most of his 2009-10 schedule. Morehead State already has arranged non-conference home games with East Tennessee State, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Louisiana-Monroe. The Eagles traveled to Kent State for a "BracketBuster" game this season, so Kent State is making a return trip to Morehead State next season. Tyndall also plans to schedule a couple of home games against Division II programs.
In addition, the Eagles also will be playing in an early season tournament at Utah State, which also made the NCAA field, but Tyndall still is trying to schedule his road guarantee games.
Balancing this task with recruiting and preparing for the season means this is a busy time for Tyndall, but he isn't about to hand off his schedule-making responsibilities to an assistant.
"Two things I learned long ago from two of my mentors – [Arkansas State coach] John Brady and [Middle Tennessee coach] Kermit Davis – are you'd better work at scheduling and recruiting every day," Tyndall said. "I'm my own recruiting coordinator and my scheduler. If things don't go well in recruiting or on my schedule, I only have one person to blame.
"I worked too hard to get where I am. Nobody's going to screw those things up. We may mess other things up, but I'm going to do my best not to mess up recruiting and to get my scheduling where it needs to be."