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Balancing Act: The Art of Basketball Scheduling

August 11, 2014
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Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

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BALANCING ACT

the delicate dance of piecing together a college basketball schedule
hopes to pay off with a ticket to March Madness' grand ball

by Will Johnson '01
12th Man Productions

For fans, finding out your team’s schedule can be like Christmas or a birthday.

It’s akin to ripping into gifts and discovering which new toys you get to play with. 

For coaches, it’s a headache. They’re parallel to the parents that stayed up all night, grinding away, trying to piece together said toys so you can enjoy them.

In today’s college basketball world, the night can last forever.

“It’s a full time job,” says Mitch Cole, who handles the slate for the Aggies.  “Scheduling is another phase of what needs to be done every day.”

Cole, the program’s special assistant, can find himself diving into the chore each day for almost two hours. What we’ve seen in recent years with the likes of George Mason, VCU, Butler and Wichita State doesn’t help his task.

“The teams five years ago that you could pay to come play at your gym and not have to return the game, they are now paying other people to come play at their gym.”

Also, the neutral site event has been in play for years, diminishing the opportunities for home games.

Cole spells out a scheduling plan that dictates playing half of the Aggies’ non-conference games against high-majors with a mix of it at home, on the road and on neutral ground. The other half he’d like to have at Reed Arena from a pool of mid-majors that meet a certain criteria.

This year’s slate suggests near perfection in trying to achieve such balance.


AN IMPRESSIVE SLATE

Cole's and and Billy Kennedy's architecture skills have helped construct one of the most impressive non-league schedules in Aggie Basketball history. It’s possible A&M will face seven teams from last year’s NCAA Tournament field in their opening 12 games.

And, it’s a matter of opinion who one would tab as a ‘name’ opponent, but this year’s non-league slate calls for at least four, and maybe six. Dayton, Arizona State, Baylor and Kansas State are all on the docket with the potential for additional matchups against the likes of New Mexico and defending national champion Connecticut, among other possible foes, in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic. 

"We have good character. We have the best leadership we’ve had since I’ve been here so we are equipped for the challenge."

- Billy Kennedy

You may have to venture back to the 1992 non-conference slate to find when the Aggies challenged themselves this much before league play. That year, Tony Barone’s team got ambitious, going against New Mexico, Missouri, Northwestern, Florida, Alabama and UNLV outside of the Southwest Conference.

That’s somewhat daunting, but it’s not quite what the Aggies will face in 2014.

“This season we’ll play one of the toughest schedules we’ve played, but we have more maturity,” states head coach Billy Kennedy. “I’m concerned about the toughness of our schedule, but we have good character. We have the best leadership we’ve had since I’ve been here so we are equipped for the challenge.”

Fans can look at the so-called ‘name’ opponent, and only focus their eyes on those dates. Perhaps it’s just more fun to anticipate the action in Puerto Rico, or a home contest with Arizona State. But, they need to understand a team doesn’t need that ‘name’ to provide serious competition in today’s college basketball world.

Texas A&M will host Mercer on December 30th in College Station. Some will say, ‘Who is Mercer?’

A good group to ask that question to is the vaunted Duke Blue Devils, who were defeated by the Bears in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March. 

“When you have kids that stayed together for a long time in these mid-major programs they can pose problems, even on your home floor,” Cole says.

“In basketball you only have thirteen scholarships,” Kennedy states. “If you have a senior-laden team with one or two big-time guys you can beat a so-called high-major team.”

And it’s not just Mercer.

The Aggies opener is against a Northwestern State team that boasts an excellent point guard and is expected to compete for the Southland Conference title.

Sam Houston State looks to be in that same mix in the SLC. The Bearkats were 24-11 last year and will come to Reed on December 3rd.

Hartford fits the coaches’ description perfectly, a senior-laden team that will pose problems. The Hawks swoop into College Station on January 3rd for the final tilt before SEC play.

In this day and age, these teams knock off the big dogs on a consistent basis.

“It may have happened once in my lifetime where Appalachian State beat Michigan in football,” Kennedy recalls, when the discussion turns to monumental upsets. “Mercer beat Duke, and there were about 15 situations or more where it happened last year in basketball.”

The Aggies will also get visits to Reed Arena from New Orleans (November 28) and Youngstown State (December 13).


CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

Where does the process begin when scheduling these games?  The route taken for a mid-major to find its way on to the Aggie schedule is why Cole finds himself constantly digging into the task.  As mentioned before, these teams need to meet a certain criteria.

“You can’t just bring in the team that is ranked No. 340,” says Cole.  “Our strategy is to bring in mid major teams that are in the top third of their league, and also have good RPI numbers.”

Those three simple letters--R, P and I--now go a long way in the hoops game.

“We sift through RPI, and not just last year. We get a 3-year average, a 5-year average,” says Cole.  “Those numbers tell you what kind of program you’re playing, not just a team.”

This is part of the reason scheduling can be so taxing.

"We sift through RPI, and not just last year. We get a 3-year average, a 5-year average...Those numbers tell you what kind of program you’re playing, not just a team."

- Mitch Cole

“I have to remain aware of the pulse of college basketball,” Cole states.  “To know which teams will project to be strong into the future and help RPI-wise if we look into scheduling them. You really have to have an eye on the college basketball world.”

You don’t have to dig too deep to know Arizona State and Kansas State can help your RPI. It’s different with Northwestern State and Youngstown State.

But once a team jumps on the radar as a potential opponent, that’s when Cole’s work really begins.

“The first thing I look at is what level of opponent we need, and what date we need as well,” he says.  “There’s a couple of websites and a couple of other things we can look at to see who needs games.”

It’s not as though Mercer became a possibility in March on the day they upset Duke. It doesn’t work that way. Cole needed a good mid-major on a date that fit. 

Then he really digs in.

“What does this team have coming back?  What style of play do they incorporate?  Where do they sit in their conference?”

The checklist continues.

“How many seniors are they losing? Who are they recruiting? How long has the coach been there? I can even watch game film on them to get another look. I need to know every single thing about this team before I bring it to Coach Kennedy. All those things determine whether we want to pick a team to play on a certain date.”

When Kennedy gives the go-ahead, that’s when ‘the game begins’ as Cole puts it. Not on the court, but on paper. Its contract time.

Back and forth the schools will go. They talk money and tickets. The Aggies want this, the potential opponent wants that. These people look over the contract, so do those, until an agreement is reached.


R.P.I., R.P.I., R.P.I.

Why is the scheduling of these mid-majors that round out the non-conference schedule so important?  Because of those three letters, R.P.I.

It’s difficult to make the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Every chance you get in the regular season matters. An RPI boost can make all the difference when it comes to grabbing those coveted, yet scarce, at-large spots in the field.

Exactly how difficult is it to dance? Just compare hoops to others.

The watered-down bowl system in college football allowed 57 percent of the FBS to boast of a postseason berth last year. In baseball, it’s far more difficult to make the NCAA Regional round, as 21 percent of programs earned a spot this spring. But it’s toughest in basketball, where 19 percent of Division I squads took a step onto the dance floor in 2013-14.

An even smaller percentage receives an at-large bid. That’s why when the committee sits down and looks you over, they better see a schedule that’s worthy. The Puerto Rico Classic, Arizona State, Baylor and Kansas State will be noticed immediately.  But a team’s tourney fate could be decided by the Northwestern States, Sam Houston States and Mercers of the world.

Think back to Christmas’ or birthdays past, and which gift was the one that kept on giving? It may have been one you didn’t even notice at the time. 

The hoops faithful always has a wish list that includes the ‘name’ opponent, and the Ags have plenty this season. But, as the season goes on, don’t forget that Sam Houston State, Northwestern State or Mercer could do just as much or more if they are a conference champ or top-100 RPI team. Wins in these games can keep giving all the way to Selection Day.

And maybe that day, when the field is announced, is when the Aggies open their gift. 

A&M is now pointing its program towards the NCAA Tournament. You have to test yourself with a schedule like the 2014-15 slate to ready yourself. 

According to the Aggies, the time is now.

“Our goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament every season,” says Kennedy.  “We feel we should be knocking at that door every season. We feel now our program is in position to do that.”



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