- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com will spend Monday-Wednesday this week looking at scheduling decisions and their impact on the 2006-07 season.
College basketball scheduling has never been more difficult, taxing and necessary to get right.
Throughout the spring and summer, a number of coaches told ESPN.com that scheduling has surpassed recruiting as the most demanding and frustrating part of their jobs -- and a number of them don't even handle the day-to-day phone calls and correspondence.
While there always have been scheduling haves and have-nots, this season provides a number of stark examples that illustrate the growing divide.
Some schools can schedule anyone, whenever they want. Just below them is another group that is still on TV's radar, can get plenty of decent home-and-home situations and can afford to pay hefty guarantees, but can't dial up Duke, North Carolina and Kansas and say, "Name a date." Next are mid-majors with money and nowhere to spend it. And finally, there are small-conference schools willing to do just about anything.
Interspersed in all this are the individual programs' agendas. Some coaches don't want to play a strong schedule. Others, due to a rebuilding team, will front-load the schedule at home. Some coaches really have no choice in whom and where they play.
Here's a look at some of the strongest examples in the various scheduling categories:
Dial up any TV executive and he or she will rattle off a list of teams whose games are hot TV commodities, regardless of venue. These schools essentially can dictate whom they want to play and when. They don't have to leave home if they don't want to during nonconference play.
Arguably, this upper crust includes includes Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Indiana, Connecticut, Michigan State, Maryland and Syracuse -- although the Orange may be moving into a class by themselves.
Syracuse simply doesn't leave home, unless it's for a tournament. The Orange stopped doing traditional home-and-home series a few years ago, even with high-profile teams. This season, Syracuse hosts the BCA Invitational (with UTEP, Penn and St. Francis (N.Y.)) as well as Northeastern, Charlotte, Holy Cross, Wichita State, Colgate, Baylor, Drexel, Hofstra and St. Bonaventure. The Orange do play Canisius in Buffalo (but not on the Golden Griffins' campus) and face Oklahoma State in the Jimmy V Classic in New York City.
The Orange won't leave the state of New York until a Big East road trip to Marquette on Jan. 7. Because they play at St. John's and the Big East tournament is in New York, only six games on Syracuse's schedule are outside of the state -- and one of those, at Rutgers, is in nearby New Jersey.
Syracuse isn't returning any of the nonconference games on its schedule. Still, the Orange are able to get quality teams -- possible NCAA Tournament teams -- such as Wichita State, Hofstra, Drexel, Charlotte and Baylor to come to Syracuse without a return game.
"Money is important for us, and because it's so much money, we can still make $400,000 on a home game, even after a guarantee," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We don't go higher than $40,000 to $60,000 for a guarantee, and when we do that, we're still making $400,000. It's hard to give up that much money.
"It's been a few years since we had a home-and-home. We usually go to a tournament, but this time it's at our place," Boeheim said.
"We're playing unbelievable mid-majors," Boeheim added. "We're not playing teams at the 290 or 300 [RPI] level. We've played teams like Bucknell, Davidson, Manhattan and Kent State at home recently."
Boeheim agreed that not many schools could pull off this kind of home advantage, but his point is that the Orange are playing a quality schedule, regardless of venue. They'll need to play well to win against potential top-20 teams in Wichita State and Hofstra, as well as Oklahoma State in New York.
Mid-majors with money, but nothing to buy
This offseason's new phenomenon was the mid-major spending spree. Well, at least some of the mid-majors had the cash.
We're not even talking about Gonzaga here. The Zags are in their own class, stuck somewhere between these two groups. Gonzaga gets plenty of high-profile television games and is in tournaments, but only recently has been able to get any of these teams to come to its campus (Stanford last year, Memphis this year).
Gonzaga also can buy games. Others could, too, but chose not to until now.
"We weren't willing to pay a lot in the past, out of principle," Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon said. "The highest we'd ever gone was $45,000, but we couldn't get anybody reasonable. We could have gone up to $60,000 to $65,000, but we wouldn't have felt good about it.
"We won't just buy anybody. We're not going to buy lower than 225 in the RPI. We could have bought schools in the 300s, but we wouldn't do it for our schedule."
Akron wanted to buy, but couldn't.
"We found out that teams would rather play a high-major and lose than play us and have a chance to win," Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. "A lot of coaches figured if they lost to a high-major like Tennessee, then it would be easier to explain than losing to Akron."
Dambrot was still scrambling for games as of last week. He said he had a contract to play in an event at Arizona State but it was pulled on him, so he jumped in on the CBE Classic in Lubbock, Texas.
"No matter what you say, it's not an equal playing field in scheduling," Dambrot said. "I don't blame those schools but when the committee looks at the schedules and says that it's not a great schedule, then I say, 'What are we supposed to do, because we can't play all our games on the road with their referees.' The mid-major gets caught."
Dambrot isn't locked into playing the full allotment of 31 games (with a four-game exempted tournament). He's at 29, and if the Zips don't advance out of Lubbock to Kansas City for two additional games (to get him to 31), he has a D-II game lined up as a replacement.
"We played 33 games last year and only 13 were at home," Dambrot said. "In fairness to our fans, we don't have a home game until Dec. 9. That's not right, either."
So, for all the new money they had to toss around, take a look at Akron's and Wichita State's home schedules compared to their road slates. The Zips, who hope to be an NCAA team, got zilch cachet outside of Nevada at home (which is a return game from last season's BracketBusters).
(H) -- Winston-Salem State, Loyola-Marymount, St. Francis (Pa.), Nevada, BracketBusters home game in February.
(R/N) -- CBE Classic in Lubbock, Texas (Arkansas-Little Rock/Texas Tech or Gardner Webb), Oral Roberts, Binghamton, Illinois-Chicago, Youngstown State and Duquesne.
(H) -- Rockhurst, Chicago State, UMKC, Holiday Classic home games (Maryland-Eastern Shore, Kennesaw State), BracketBusters home game in February.
(R/N) -- George Mason, LSU, Syracuse, Wyoming, Holiday Classic in Las Vegas (New Mexico and Kansas State/USC).
The Mason game is a return from BracketBusters. LSU and Wyoming are the start of series (home-and-home with LSU, with a third game being played in Shreveport). Syracuse is a one-way.
"I backed myself into a corner with the schedule &133; I couldn't get games and wanted one more quality game and Syracuse put up a tremendous package," Turgeon said of the guaranteed money. "But I don't plan on doing that [one-way without a return] again."
Scheduling for the NCAAs
Few teams wanted to gear their schedule specifically toward an NCAA Tournament berth -- and were able to do so -- as much as UMass.
The Minutemen play at Pitt, at Louisville, at Kentucky and get Boston College and Miami at home. That's enough right there, but the Minutemen also play six other games -- Oakland and Northeastern in Pittsburgh (as part of the Colonial Classic), Jacksonville State, Savannah State, Boston University and Central Connecticut -- on the road or at neutral sites.
Yale, Dartmouth and St. Francis (N.Y.) are the buy games, for which head coach Travis Ford said the Minutemen could offer up to $50,000. Needless to say, Pitt and Louisville aren't returning the games, but Kentucky is coming to Massachusetts, albeit in Boston, in December 2007.
"When the committee looks at the schedule, we want them to say, 'Wow,'" Ford said. "We want them to be impressed."
Once again, the tier system comes into play here. UMass is able to get straight home-and-home games with BC and Miami. Playing at BU isn't odd when you consider the Minutemen want to recruit Boston and play a game in the city every year (alternating between BU and BC). Playing at Savannah State and Jacksonville State, though, clearly shows where UMass is in the scheduling pecking order. Ford is playing these games for the sole purpose of getting road RPI points. UMass hosted Savannah State last season, and will host Jacksonville State in 2007-08.
A lesson in scheduling insanity
OK, for those out there planning on traveling from Columbus, Miss., to Atlanta on Nov. 11, you've been warned that your plane might stink a bit.
Nicholls State might not have time to freshen up after playing Mississippi State at 2 p.m. in Starkville. The Colonels have to catch the 5:30 p.m. flight from Columbus to Atlanta to connect for a flight to Seattle for a three-day tournament in Washington -- starting the next day -- against the host Huskies, Northern Iowa and Pepperdine.
"I may not be the brightest guy in the world," said Nicholls State head coach J.P. Piper. "We may not have time to shower."
According to Piper, Nicholls State owed money to Basketball Travelers International, a company that organizes basketball tournaments and tours. Nicholls State previously took a foreign trip and, as part of the contract, had to pay BTI money over five years in return for an exhibition game. It basically was a way for the school to pay for the trip over five years.
Nicholls had not completed the payments, though, before a coaching and administrative change caused the Colonels to drop the ball on them. It was easy, then, for BTI to call on Nicholls for a favor to complete the Washington tournament field. Nicholls agreed to play but got a hefty guarantee of "higher than $75,000." BTI also waived Nicholls' last owed payment and also secured Nicholls in a BTI event in Las Vegas next season.
"That's life at the bottom," Piper said. "Money dictates what you do. The deal was too good to pass up. I know the reality is that we're not expected to beat Mississippi State, Washington, Pepperdine and Northern Iowa. But you're taking kids out of the deep South to a part of the country that they normally wouldn't go to, and that's a big deal to them. We have to raise money in our pre-conference schedule. I'll be evaluated by my success in the conference. It's not ideal."
Nicholls also plays road games at LSU, Texas, Ole Miss, Auburn and Vanderbilt.
Piper said he has heard the rumors that schools at his level are waiting out high majors to get upward of $100,000 from some schools. That isn't necessarily far from the truth. If schools wait until August to schedule, there is a chance they can get $65,000 to $75,000, minimum. If the schedule is done in May, when Piper likes to do most of his scheduling, "it's usually in the $45,000 to $50,000 [range]."
"We had Katrina folks in our gym for a while, so we had some repairs to make," Piper said. "[The guaranteed money] will help pay for the chairback seats that we already put in."
Piper said Houston wanted to pay Nicholls State for a guarantee game, but he turned the Cougars down. Why?
"I don't want to go to Houston for a guarantee and lose when I could recruit against them," said Piper, "but if Texas [which Nicholls is playing] or Texas A&M call, then I would [take the game].
"[Mid-majors] want home-and-home series, but then they could come in and beat me here and then beat me there, so why do that?" said Piper. "What I am trying to do is get one big school to do a three-for-one with no money to get them to come here, but I'm not finding a lot of enthusiasm for that."
The ultimate blender
The Gaels are a rare breed this year. Saint Mary's got bought, according to coach Randy Bennett, for a number "in the $90,000 range," by Connecticut, yet also is hosting two in-season tournaments and has traditional home-and-home games as well.
Saint Mary's hosts San Diego State, Murray State and Seattle Pacific (non-Division I) in the Shamrock Invitational (straight round-robin) as well as Western Carolina (in game one) and then either Rice or Belmont (in game two) in the Shamrock Office Solutions Classic. Meanwhile, Saint Mary's is at USC, Cal Poly, Saint Joseph's, Seton Hall and Nevada and also hosts San Jose State, Southern Illinois and TCU.
The Gaels waited out Seton Hall, jumping on the chance when the Pirates became desperate for a game. Seton Hall will return the game in Moraga, Calif., next season.
"Normally, a school like Seton Hall wouldn't play us in a home-and-home but we waited late and they need a home game, and that's what we have to do to position ourselves every year," Bennett said. The Gaels will make two separate trips east, one on Dec. 2 for Seton Hall and another on Dec. 17 for UConn. Saint Mary's got SIU to start a home-and-home series in Moraga this year and concludes ones with TCU and Nevada that started last season.
"The only time to get a good deal is now," Bennett said. "You can't do that in March and April."
Bennett said Saint Mary's has $20,000 to offer up for a guarantee. "You can't get a Division I for that," he said. "Not when schools are coming at them with $70,000. Schools would rather get the money and lose to a school that is paying that than lose to a team paying so little that doesn't have as high an RPI.
"We don't look for the best guarantee, we look for the best situation," Bennett said.
Saint Mary's tough nonconference schedule ultimately will help the Gaels if they can win some of their games. Interestingly, it also could help rival WCC member Gonzaga if the Gaels can maintain a strong RPI.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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