Nonconference scheduling is changing, but what does that really mean?

Nonconference scheduling in college basketball is in flux. What sort of impact will that have on the sport?
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In April 2007, national runner-up Ohio State faced Florida in the national championship game and lost, 84-75. It was the Buckeyes’ second such defeat that season; in December, it had traveled to Gainesville and fallen 86-60 to the Gators. Ohio State played 14 nonconference games that season, losing that matchup in Gainesville and another on the road at No. 7 North Carolina. It also hosted No. 16 Tennessee in Columbus.

It was a different era. Today, it’s rare to see such marquee matchups anywhere other than at neutral sites or tournaments. To play three ranked nonconference opponents in one year under the terms Ohio State did 10 years ago is pretty much unheard of. (It’s shocking, frankly, that we’ve seen another title game that was a rematch of a regular-season meeting in the past decade: Duke-Wisconsin in 2015.) Take this year’s national champion, North Carolina, which faced Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky in November and December. Only one of those games was held on a campus; it played the Badgers in Hawaii and the Wildcats in Las Vegas.

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This is to say that college basketball has evolved when it comes to scheduling. The ACC has already committed to upping its conference slate from 18 to 20 games in 2019-20, and last week, the Big Ten announced it would explore a similar move 10 years after it last increased its conference schedule. With big names like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo speaking to ESPN in support of the potential move, it’s hard to think this isn’t a serious consideration. And if two of the Power 5 conferences move from 18 to 20 nonconference games, it’s easy to imagine this move sweeping across the rest of big-time college hoops. Which will mean… what, exactly?

The move, should the Big Ten legislate it, can be interpreted in several ways. There’s the optimistic reaction—that it will mean more high-level games between conference rivals. And that’s true, except, of course, that conferences are becoming much less based on geography or history and much more on cash. Under this shift in schedule, Big Ten play would likely start in December, and there’s something undeniably fun about the idea of watching, say, Wisconsin-Indiana basketball instead of a bowl game before Christmas.

Now, let’s play devil’s advocate: Adding two conference games wouldn’t increase the cap on how many games teams are allowed to play each regular season, which stands at 29—or 27 and a four-game tournament, for a total of 31. More conference games equates to fewer nonconference ones, which could mean even fewer of those marquee matchups. In fact, that seems likely. A successful program would hope to go undefeated in its nonconference slate, and realistically, it’d concede a loss or two to boost its strength of schedule. With two fewer out-of-league contests, it’d want to be something close to perfect, assuming the two in-conference add-ons to the schedule weren’t from the dungeon of the league standings. For instance, if Indiana is going to get Michigan State twice instead of once some year, it might be more risk averse when it comes to scheduling a big-name out-of-conference opponent. One win can mean a lot, be it for a team with championship aspirations or a team on the bubble.

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On the flip side, fewer nonconference games could also mean fewer crimes against basketball, like Oregon-Savannah State last December 3, which ended in a 128-59 Ducks victory. These so-called buy games are a venue for bigger programs to write hefty checks to tiny ones in order to add wins to their schedules. Most of the time, these games are stultifying. And the rare occasions that they’re close don’t necessarily justify them. What does, though, is that these games often keep programs like Savannah State afloat. With tiny athletics budgets, one evisceration at the hands of Oregon could fund a good percentage of the budget, and yes, sports are subject to capitalism, but this minor spreading of the wealth is important for smaller schools. Sports become more and more stratified between the haves and the have-nots with every passing year, and the more money and power are centralized among smaller and smaller groups, the less of a chance for drama, upsets, ridiculousness—basically all the reasons for which everyone but Alabama, Duke and Kentucky fans watch sports.

For now, we wait. The Big Ten hasn’t yet ruled on the idea of future schedule expansion, and even if it does, it’ll be 2020, most likely, before the changes are implemented. And it won’t be a sweeping change across college basketball, even if the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC quickly follow suit. It’ll be a minor tweak, accepted as gospel in no time. It may not improve the game, and it may not make it worse, but it’s clear nonconference scheduling in college basketball is changing.