The bold new college basketball flex schedule model that would bring big non-conference games in February

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An innovative non-conference programming initiative is growing behind the scenes in college basketball that, if adopted, would change the landscape of the sport every February.

Twenty-two of the 32 Division I conferences have been receptive to an ambitious programming concept that would introduce back-to-back non-league games played just weeks before selection on Sunday, said WAC Commissioner Brian Thornton and WAC Associate Commissioner Drew Speraw at CBS. Sports. The selling point of these non-conference matchups would be to pit projected NCAA tournament contenders, in addition to actual bubble teams, against each other. Additionally, there would be a series of games between schools battling to improve their NCAA tournament resumes.

Here’s how the concept, the first of its kind, would work: For one week in February, a slew of leagues would pause their conference schedules and instead require all of their members to play against two non-conference opponents. The model would require each team involved to play one home game and one away game, with the majority of those games taking place three days apart – many on Wednesdays and Saturdays – with the window starting after Valentine’s Day. .

Matchups would be decided by an algorithm that would ensure that the best teams play against the best teams. The games would not be determined until the end of January. Think of it as a mini-Sunday Selection in the regular season. You could even create a TV show around it. How fun would that be?

If the major multi-candidate leagues (American Athletic Conference, Mountain West, Atlantic 10, West Coast Conference) decide to do so, college hoops could theoretically have non-conference games in late February like Gonzaga-Houston, Colorado State-Davidson, Memphis – Saint Mary’s or Boise State-Davidson – any team that comfortably made the 2022 NCAA Tournament. This would provide a late-season scheduling opportunity that would undeniably improve the visibility of these conferences. and the viability of getting more teams to discuss qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

This revolutionary concept was brought up by Thornton, a former college basketball coach, who first toyed with the idea in 2020 when he was an associate commissioner at the American Athletic Conference. There’s no official name attached to the event yet, but the whole notion is meant to make college basketball’s regular season better.

Its concept is slightly similar to ESPN’s “Bracket Busters” model of the 2000s and early 2010s, but instead of having a handful of mid-sized teams competing against each other one day, it would be about a national event that would last almost a week. and ensuring teams play at home and on the road. It’s “Bracket Busters” on steroids.

“It’s a home and away [setup], regardless of conference affiliation, regardless of seeding, the top teams play ‘like’ games,” Thornton said. “A Quad 2 team plays a Quad 2 team. It’s merit-based. . You earn your spot. …You get two great games that you couldn’t get on your own.

Initially, Thornton hoped to make it a sort of alliance of four leagues. Then, speaking to people around college sports, the response was encouraging; involving eight conferences seemed feasible. At this point, at least a dozen leagues have expressed serious interest in doing so and are ready to move forward.

Michigan State Associate Kevin Pauga, AD Kevin Pauga, a man considered a programming guru in college athletics, was the third element to craft this zealous idea. Pauga — who also has builds the KPI, one of six metrics on NCAA tournament roster sheets — helps create planning templates for more than a dozen conferences and a litany of NCAA-sanctioned sports. With Pauga’s help, the field was sent to all 26 leagues outside of the six largest conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC). The six biggest leagues are not involved for practical reasons: 20-game league schedules, rigid television contracts and the feeling that they would not adopt this concept outside the box because it would not benefit many teams in these countries. leagues as he would for all the others.

“We’ve spoken with 22 leagues and there’s real interest at this point,” Speraw said.

Scheduling logistics wouldn’t be difficult, because by agreeing to do so, those conferences and teams would be taking two non-con games off the schedule in November or December, only to trade them to potentially better opponents at a more urgent time in the season. Additionally, the conferences would then have the ability and flexibility to push back two championship games, into December, to help adjust to the schedule.

If this model is accepted, it would start in the 2023-24 season.

Said Pauga: “’23-24 and ’24-25 are seasons that last a week longer than normal because the Final Four is linked to the start of the Masters. Some league games could be moved before Christmas.” That means it’s coming at an ideal time: these two seasons are the perfect testing grounds for this concept. There are also ongoing discussions about doing this in women’s hoops as well.

What’s the benefit of experimenting with this? Pauga said that, last season, the 22-conference-expressed-interest model would have produced 31 Quad 1 opportunities and 52 Quad 2 opportunities. That’s 83 consequence games that would impact team resumes and reshape all team sheet metrics.

These are games that can have a tangible impact on how the NCAA tournament is ranked and selected. Plus, an event like this would get the attention of the fans, the media, and even the selection committee in a way that most games in single-bid/smaller leagues don’t. It would be a shot in the arm for the college basketball schedule. February would become more exciting, more relevant.

It can also serve as an advantage in this regard: many coaches would be willing to break the monotony of league play to get a pair of non-conference games in February, to help get them in shape before March. It’s reminiscent of how power conference teams routinely scheduled non-league games in February. Coaches believed it helped a team stay fresh and better prepared for March. Something like this could help bring that spirit back — and perhaps, eventually, inspire some power conference teams to follow suit in the future.

“It reduces the margin of error that exists,” Thornton said. “With the transfer portal, you don’t know if you’re going to be good or if your team you’re playing against is going to be good.”

Along with the Quad 1 and Quad 2 games and teams that would be the big draw, Thornton said the lowest-rated teams in all of those leagues would also play “similar” opponents, but with the goal of making the games as pragmatic/ cautious as possible, there would be a geographic preference for sub-.500 matches that would come with this initiative.

“It reduces non-DI matchups, badly scheduled matches and gives fans and teams matches they wouldn’t normally get,” Thornton said. “It breaks up the monotony of the conference situation and prepares the teams for the NCAA tournament. … It’s just different and that’s what we really liked. Kevin has the ability to plug in all those parameters and allow the computer to dictate it. . We don’t want squabbles of ‘We don’t want to hit the road here, I don’t want to play against this opponent.'”

A key part of this idea is to remove human decision-making when it comes to determining which teams play each other. Pauga said the matchups would not be in the hands of coaches, athletic directors and conferences. The algorithm would automatically determine matchups at the end of January – around three weeks before the current matches – based on team performance. It could be NET-based, or it could be determined by a combination of outcome-based and predictive measures. There would be no rematch of games already played between non-conference opponents from the start of the season.

“Everyone gets what they need,” Pauga said. “Two years ago it might be Dayton-San Diego State. Both teams were going in, it’s only two top 10 teams getting there at a time, which would be really exciting for schools and brands. We’re basically trying to play the matchmaking calendar.”

Pauga said some security barriers would be accepted by all conferences. Thornton, Speraw and Pauga put together a package to explain how the algorithm would take into account things like travel, bus mileage, flight mileage and how this can be built fairly. The games would also be broadcast on numerous television networks; it is not a logistical problem due to the fact that these schools already have non-conference games linked to certain networks as is. You’re just moving the schedule for those non-conference games instead of having to restructure television contracts.

“The buzz around him is good right now,” Speraw said. “We are happy with the leagues that have shown interest and asked a lot of questions.”

With conferences across the country scheduled to hold their annual league meetings in May and June, this scheduling initiative will be a talking point for coaches and athletic directors over the next month and beyond. Their feedback is crucial. If they see the big picture, they will see a brighter future for college basketball. Before we get to the best month of the year, a late-February frenzy serving as an on-ramp to March Madness feels like a wonderful appetizer for postseason basketball.


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