The Pac-12 got it right with the 20-game conference basketball schedule (starting in 2020-21), but that cannot be the only move.
The addition of two conference games in late November/early December will generate more attention for Pac-12 basketball during a slow stretch — the weekend of the Heisman Trophy, for instance, is one of the lightest of the year in college sports.
The move increases the likelihood of the marquee teams meeting twice, instead of once, in a given year.
And it should result in an uptick in the conference’s overall strength of schedule:
Where two nonconference cupcakes once existed — a Cal Baptist and Savannah State here; an Idaho and Montana State there — each schedule will instead have two Power Five (i.e., Pac-12) opponents.
But the changes cannot end there, not if the Pac-12 wants to haul itself out of the current morass and send more teams to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis.
The conference must take an essential second step and create objective standards for nonconference schedules.
Currently, too many teams play too many awful opponents, and those games — win or lose, but especially lose — drag down the entire conference in the metrics that form the backbone of the NCAA tournament selection process.
“You don’t have to tell everybody that they have to play top-10 teams, but you can’t be playing the bottom third of Division I at home and expect it to help at all,’’ said Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA executive vice president who ran the tournament for more than a decade.
“There is a large path of potential opponents that you’re not helping yourself if you play them. You can’t regard the nonconference thing as one or two games. All of them have to be better.”
Several teams already play acceptable nonconference schedules. Arizona and UCLA have done it for years; Washington and Arizona State have upgraded recently.
But other programs stock their nonconference lineups with opponents that rank in the bottom third of Division I, and too few are willing to play true road games.
“Maximum reward comes by going on the road,’’ Shaheen said.
(Washington State played five home games last season against teams with NET rankings of at least 300; Utah played four; Cal, Colorado and Oregon State also played schedules that could be considered a bit too soft.)
Any conference-wide upgrade could come about in one of two ways:
The conference office could serve as a formal adviser in the scheduling process — the SEC employs this approach — with the authority to put the kibosh on proposed opponents.
Or the Pac-12 could establish a minimum acceptable standard by which each team’s opponents in a given year must have, for example, a collective average NET ranking of 175 from the previous three seasons.
“We need better nonconference schedules with meaningful criteria that holds ourselves accountable for doing things we’re not comfortable doing,’’ Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes, former chair of the NCAA selection committee, told the Hotline recently.
“That doesn’t mean you have to play murderers row with the schedules, but you have to be thoughtful.”
The path is more circuitous than linear, however: The schools must grant the conference office the authority to force the schools to play tougher schedules.
The topic is on the agenda when presidents/chancellors meet with conference executives in June — they must approve any changes in standards to the schedule — and there are two primary obstacles:
- Resistance by the head coaches, who equate tougher schedules to more losses, and more losses to quicker terminations. “Head coaches want to protect their career,” Shaheen said, “but you have to look at what’s best for the conference.”
- The economic aspect: The higher up the Division I food chain you aim in the quest for quality home games, the bigger the paycheck required. Bottom feeders can be had for $50,000; midlevel opponents demand $75,000 or $100,000, if not more. And that’s not a one-time increase.
Upgrading the overall quality of the nonconference home schedule in a given season would force programs to increase budgets by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We have to look at the investment component around this,’’ Barnes said.
And so the presidents and chancellors will enter the fray.
The potential benefits that come with greater investment in the nonconference schedules — more teams in the NCAAs, elevated interest and engagement at the local level — make this a problem with only one solution.