For mid-major NCAA basketball teams, scheduling is a major issue

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

Looking to add games for next season, Wichita State men's basketball Coach Gregg Marshall sits in his office and awaits word from an assistant and school official who for weeks have been calling dozens of teams asking to play. Time after time, they relay Marshall the same two-letter response: no.

"It is a pain in the [butt], for lack of a better word," Marshall said. "Constantly pounding the keys on the phone to get somebody to say yes. It's almost impossible."

The period between the end of the Final Four and the start of July's recruiting period is a critical and often maddening season for head coaches, assistants and athletic department officials hoping to finalize men's basketball schedules at competitive mid-major programs.

While they aim to find strong opponents to bolster their strength of schedule, getting a respectable team -- much less one from a power conference -- to come to their arena is usually a futile endeavor. And all that could be riding on finding the right opponents is a potential at-large NCAA tournament berth next season and maybe even job security for the head coach.

"It is part of the puzzle that you have to figure out," New Mexico State Coach Marvin Menzies said, "or you can schedule yourself out of a job."

As Marshall put it, recruiting, scheduling and coaching are the most important aspects in college basketball -- in that order. While scheduling does not involve schmoozing third-party handlers who can steer recruits to a program, it still involves scouring the nation for someone to say yes, and some say that challenge for mid-major programs has become almost more difficult than recruiting.

"It is the worst thing in the world, scheduling," Oakland University Coach Greg Kampe said. "It is the worst."

Even at a school such as Morehead State, an Ohio Valley Conference program never in position to earn an at-large berth, the process is exhausting. Coach Donnie Tyndall said "every team in America" called when he took over a four-win program in 2006. Now, after an NCAA tournament appearance in 2009 and a 23-win campaign last season, it's just the opposite. Tyndall said his staff has called close to 200 schools; nearly half have openings on their schedule but will not play.

"It is like trying to find a date to the prom," Tyndall said. "You keep hearing no and eventually you say, 'Shoot, I don't know if I want to go to the prom or not.' We've all heard no so much the last few months it gets discouraging."

At Utah State, which has reached the NCAA tournament in six of the past 10 seasons, no one had much luck luring opponents to Logan, Utah, where the Aggies are 176-13 in 12 seasons under Coach Stew Morrill. So officials enlisted a prominent promoter to try to schedule a couple of nonleague games on a neutral floor against power-conference teams. He returned with a declaration: "You're right, no one wants to play you."

"It has been a nightmare," Morrill said.

Morrill said he has even tried to persuade good friend Mike Montgomery, the California coach, to play a home-and-home series against Utah State, only to elicit this response: "He just laughs at me," Morrill said. "He says: 'We're not playing you, that doesn't do us any good. I'm not that stupid.' Even your best buddies don't want to play."

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