League should protect top matchups

Originally Published: February 1, 2005
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

So, here's the deal ...

If Illinois loses to Michigan State on Tuesday night in East Lansing, the Illini don't get another shot at the Spartans. And vice versa.

Luther Head
Luther Head has come up big regularly for Illinois.

[Editor's note: Illinois defeated Michigan State 81-68 on Tuesday night.]

This is it.

We knew that. We've known that since the Big Ten schedule came out in the preseason. But that doesn't mean, we in the media, the public, or the coaches, players or schools like it one bit.

No one does.

"This hurts the conference," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

"It makes it difficult for there to be a true champion," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "If we win, we go two up on Michigan State, but if we lose, we sit back and keep winning and hope they lose to somebody else because we won't have that opportunity to get them back."

Illinois (21-0, 7-0 in the Big Ten before Tuesday's victory) would lose a one-game tiebreaker to Michigan State (14-3, 5-1) due to head-to-head competition.

The Big Ten chooses to do its scheduling by random draw -- and that draw once again came up with Illinois and Michigan State meeting only once a season in this two-year cycle. Overall, this is the fourth time in six years that the Spartans and Illini have met only once during the regular season.

Say what?

How does that happen?

Well, the Big Ten doesn't do what the Big East does, which is to protect rivalry games or predict which teams might end up being the top teams in the league and ensure they play twice.

The Big East missed out on Boston College (or perhaps chose not to have the Eagles play the top teams twice since BC is leaving for the ACC). BC plays Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Notre Dame once each this season.

But those other four teams play each other twice.

The Big 12 scheduling format is set -- they go with a football formula and the schools in the North and South Division play the teams within each other twice and the teams from the other side once (that's why Kansas plays Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma only once). The SEC has a similar system with the East and West Division.

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  • The ACC started an unbalanced schedule this year but did protect certain rivalries to ensure two Duke-North Carolina games. North Carolina-Wake Forest only happened once this season and that, too, could be counted as a misstep by the league.

    But the Big Ten simply inputs names into a computer and spits out a schedule. There are four teams that a school plays once a season for a two-year cycle. It rotates for another two-year cycle with four new teams. On the third two-year cycle before it resets, two schools are repeated (there are only 11 Big Ten schools).

    Coincidentally, Michigan State and Illinois landed in two of those three cycles for a one-play. That's why two of the top schools in the league since 2000 played once that year (at Michigan State), one time in 2001 (at Illinois), twice in '02 and '03, and then once in 2004 (at Illinois) before Tuesday's only meeting in 2005 (at Michigan State).

    The Spartans finished one game behind the Illini last season. They lost the one game in Champaign.

    Wisconsin, the third-place team in the Big Ten, plays Illinois and Michigan State twice this season.

    Next season, Illinois and Michigan State play twice in the new two-year cycle.

    But that's next season.

    "I know it's hard to predict these things because in the Big East, no one predicted BC to be this good," Weber said. "But we're losing an opportunity for great matchups for our fans. There are definitely some flaws in the way these schedules are set up in these different leagues."

    Weber and Izzo said there has been talk about moving to 18 or 20 league games to avoid these scheduling problems. But Mark Rudner of the Big Ten said the coaches were against that proposal in the past. When the Big Ten went to a conference tournament in 1998 the league dropped from 18 to 16 conference games.

    "Our ADs and coaches didn't want any type of protection," Rudner said. "They wanted to create a random draw and live with the results."

    According to at least one television executive, the Big Ten doesn't take requests for rivalry games. There isn't a College GameDay road show this season because the Big Ten chose not to move games to accommodate ESPN's request for scheduling.

    "I know our league won't budge on it," Izzo said of moving games for TV and protecting rivalries. "I know they say it balances out but it can take 10 years. It's just been kind of weird the way it has worked out (with Michigan State and Illinois)."

    Izzo said moving to 18 or 20-league games would mean the end of the conference tournament and he doesn't see that happening anytime soon.

    Izzo would be in favor of an NFL-like schedule where the best teams from the previous season play the toughest schedules.

    Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who does play Michigan State and Illinois twice, said he has tried to make sense of the schedule but can't. But Ryan isn't for making a subjective call on the matchups the following season, "because how do you know?"

    You don't know every year, but you should know that Michigan State and Illinois are going to be in the race for the conference title, let alone the Final Four. The Big Ten computer doesn't care about that -- the results show it remains impartial.

    So, enjoy this meeting. Like Wake Forest-North Carolina, Boston College-Syracuse and Alabama-Kentucky to name a few, it will be the only one this season between two of the potential top teams in a high-major conference.

    Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

    Andy Katz | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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