News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 15, 2012

Scheduling creates summer angst for MVC coaches

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The summer is when it’s usually all good for a college basketball program.

There’s no wins and losses to dissect. The new summer practice rules — which allow more contact between coaches and players — builds experience for the upcoming season.

The dead periods bring some modicum of rest for coaches. July recruiting brings promise for the future.

But there’s one part of the summer that brings nothing but stress — nonconference scheduling.

“We have one more date to get … how ‘bout we fill it today?” said Evansville coach Marty Simmons, conveying the angst when asked how long into the summer he’d be willing to wait to fill a date.

Scheduling is stressful everywhere, but especially in the Missouri Valley Conference. Major conference schools have the pick of the college basketball litter to play. Low-major conference schools can pick from the highest bidder as major conference teams dole out cash for “buy games” knowing there’s no expectation of a return game from small schools.

In the Missouri Valley Conference, it isn’t that simple. MVC programs are prominent enough where they want to host as many games as they can, but they also want to play major conference schools with some form of a return game.

The problem? Many major conference schools avoid MVC schools at any site because the risk of getting beaten is higher. As for playing at a MVC facility? MVC gyms are so toxic to many major schools that they could qualify as HAZMAT sites.

MVC schools can’t always turn to low-majors to fill schedules either because low-majors make more money in guarantees at  major schools.

As of Thursday, Bradley, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Wichita State were the only MVC schools that had completed their schedules. Many schools still have multiple dates open. Indiana State is no exception — the Sycamores have two dates to fill.

The following games are confirmed for ISU in 2012-13:

ISU will play at home against New Mexico in the last edition of the Mountain West-MVC Challenge on Dec. 1. ISU will host High Point on Nov. 25. ISU will also host a BracketBusters game in February.

ISU will play true road games at UCLA to open the season on Nov. 9. The Sycamores also play at Ball State on Nov. 20 and Morehead State on Dec. 8.

ISU will play in the neutral site Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Dec. 22-25, and will also play IUPUI at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Dec. 15.

ISU has several irons in the fire for its remaining openings — with schools and deals of every shape and size — but has nothing confirmed.

“I hate it,” said Lansing on scheduling.

“I want to play competitive teams, whether it be on the road or at home. … I really wish we could get some BCS schools to come here a little easier, even if its a two-for-one or three-for-one, but they don’t think about that much because they don’t have to,” he added.

Some MVC schools try to beef up their schedules by waiting. A figurative game of chicken is played as a plumb date could open up at the last minute against a desirable foe. But it’s a risk and sometimes programs are left holding the bag. Drake, which has two dates left, is rolling the dice this summer.

“You get nervous. You’re checking the pulse everyday. It’s strategic. After recruiting, it’s probably the most important thing you do,” said Drake coach Mark Phelps, who did scheduling as an assistant at North Carolina State and Arizona State.

“Really, really good things can happen late. So if you’ve got the nerve to wait around and not go on something you like instead of love, you have a chance to really get your ideal team. You also take a chance in not getting it,” he added.

Inside the MVC, not all schools deal with the same paramaters.

Affluent programs like Creighton are game buyers as much as major schools are … it’s just that the Bluejays rarely convince major schools to play them in Omaha at any price.

Comparably poor programs, like ISU, have budget constraints that only allow them to buy a game or two at most.

It creates a dynamic of scheduling have’s and have not’s which can run counter to the league’s desire to have a unified front as far as scheduling to create an environment for stronger RPI, etc.

Would it be in the league’s interest — or even possible? — to assist the teams that can’t guarantee as many games?

“Everybody is different. I don’t feel or think the league wants or is in a position to try and even it out or say, ‘You can buy a certain amount of games, and if you can’t, we’re going to find a way to help.’ Everyone has different resources and each school has to do what they can with what fits their philosophy,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said.

What the MVC does do for league scheduling is to assist in getting league schools into non-exempt tournaments. ISU’s participation in last November’s Old Spice Classic and the Diamond Head Classic this December came with an assist from the league office. Nearly every MVC team has had the good word put in for them, so to speak, from the MVC to take part in these events.

But some teams have found themselves in a position to bite the bullet and take what they can. The one-and-done “buy game” is anathema to many league schools, but many have found there to be no other choice. ISU will play its third “buy game” in as many seasons at UCLA.

Sometimes the stars align and a buy game coincides with a coach’s individual scheduling philosophy. That’s the case at Illinois State, where new coach Dan Muller scheduled a buy game at Louisville on Dec. 1. Previous coach Tim Jankovich was oft-maligned by many MVC observers for playing a weak nonconference schedule.

“I want to prepare my team for great conference play at home and on the road,” Muller said. “There was a conscious effort to use my scheduling philosophy and it just so happens I wanted to beef it up.”

Lansing admitted that for ISU it’s really not a matter of choice. Its low budget dictates that buy games make sense for the bottom line.

“We probably have the lowest budget in the Valley. We kind of need that. We kind of need to get bought,” Lansing said. “You don’t want to have to get bought, you’d rather go to a place twice and get one home game, but most schools aren’t willing to do that.”