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

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; D07

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."

Morrill is holding one open date for next season, hoping to play a power-conference team -- and he'll even go on the road to play.

At many power-conference schools, coaches can schedule judiciously because they can play their way into the NCAA tournament with nothing more than a respectable performance in their conference, so their nonconference schedule doesn't need to be too difficult. At the other end of the food chain, low-major programs often need to go on the road to play several "guarantee games," sometimes receiving upwards of $80,000 for the chance to get pummeled by superior teams, all so they can financially sustain their program.

"That's what it comes down to, it's the haves and the have nots in college basketball," Marshall said. "It's a caste system. There is a pecking order."

Morrill always tells young coaches two factors to remember before taking a Division I head coaching job: Can you get players into school and do you control your own schedule? "If you can control your own schedule," he said, "nobody is going to schedule you out of a job and make you play six money games and get your brains beat out and not have any confidence for your team."

But among competitive mid-major teams, the challenge is unique. Perennial national contenders such as Gonzaga, Memphis during the Coach John Calipari years or, to a lesser extent, Butler in recent years have dominated their respective conferences. For them, elite nonconferences games work more toward helping to improve NCAA tournament seeding.

At other mid-major schools, piecing together a smart schedule could prove the difference between an NCAA tournament berth and, in some cases, unemployment. Persuading a competitive team to play will improve one's position in the Ratings Percentage Index, a mathematical measurement of a team's strength that accounts for strength of schedule.

But there is little incentive for coaches in power conferences to play strong teams from non-major conferences. It all comes down to what coaches call self-preservation and the need to serve their own self-interests. Kampe, the Oakland coach, said his scheduling challenge is easier than most because "I don't care." After 26 seasons at the school and with strong job security, he tries to win the Summit League and schedules a who's who of power-conference teams in nonleague road games, record be damned. Next season's slate includes West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan State (at a neutral site).

But there are still issues. Kampe has had trouble scheduling Detroit. Finally, after Oakland center Keith Benson declared for the NBA draft, Detroit called and asked to start a series; Kampe agreed. The next week, Benson withdrew and the phone rang. It was Detroit, saying they have a scheduling conflict.

"That's the crap that happens," Kampe said.

"Guys will out and out lie to you," said Morrill, who sometimes includes a $75,000 no-appearance clause in contracts in case a team, after playing the Aggies at their arena, decides not to play a return game in Utah. "You don't know that you have a game scheduled until the contract is sitting in front of you, signed and done."

Meantime, at Wichita State, Marshall waits for his phone to ring. Wichita State has just two home games -- University of Missouri-Kansas City and Tulsa -- secured right now. He'd love to have a two-for-one series with Kansas or Kansas State, where he'd play home, road and neutral-site games against a well-known in-state team. Keep dreaming, he said.

He is still searching for four games for next season.

"It's going to take a while," Marshall said.

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