- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Derek Thomas and Mike Davis agreed when they were Big Ten assistants that if they ever got head coaching jobs, they would help each other schedule.
So, when Thomas landed at Western Illinois two years ago, he called up Davis, who already had guided Indiana to the national title game in 2002, and wanted to make sure they would still play. The schools agreed to a two-for-one deal.
Games like Indiana at Western Illinois, regardless of the background, are rare occurrences. High majors usually don't go to mid- or low-majors, because they don't have to.
"More of this should be going on," Thomas said. "The committee is always saying that the bigger schools need to go out and play games on the road."
True. Still, IU's scheduling philosophy is rare and begs the question: how do similar schools go about their scheduling?
We offer up a few case studies:
Indiana vs. Kentucky
Just look at Indiana's schedule. The Hoosiers play another challenging nonconference slate -- maybe more challenging than any other school at its level. In addition to the trip to Western Illinois, the Hoosiers play at Indiana State, against Butler in Indianapolis and at Ball State. How many top-level programs would be willing to give up that many home games? Zilch.
IU does play three guarantee (i.e. pay for a W) games (Nicholls State, Florida A&M and Eastern Michigan), but also has Duke at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the annual Kentucky game (this year in Indianapolis), plays at Charlotte in the return game of a true home-and-home series (and the rematch of last season's controversial Charlotte buzzer-beater) and home against Connecticut.
In comparison, Kentucky's last true road game at a mid- or low-major was Dec. 10, 1997, when UK played at Canisius. This season, Kentucky is playing Georgia State in Atlanta (at Phillips Arena, though, not on Georgia State's campus) as a result of Kentucky coach Tubby Smith having a relationship with Georgia State coach Michael Perry. This is also a chance for Kentucky fans in Atlanta to see the Wildcats in person.
The rest of the schedule is standard Kentucky fare. The Wildcats are in the Guardians Classic, getting two guarantee games at home before likely moving onto Kansas City and stiffer competition in the event's semifinals. Kentucky has four other guarantee home games, Louisville at home in the annual series, and games at Kansas, home against North Carolina, and in Cincinnati against Ohio, technically a Kentucky home game that might not be too partisan.
Kentucky spokesperson Scott Stricklin said the Wildcats get so many requests for neutral site games that there is no way they could do them all. But his best response is that there are actually complaints from fans when the Wildcats don't play a home game. The feeling in Lexington is they want to reward their loyal fan base with as many home games as possible.
Who schedules smarter? We say Kentucky, because the Cats essentially can pick and choose every game they want to play.
Duke vs. Connecticut
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun went on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's satellite radio show Friday and quizzed him about playing a home-and-home game in the future. A Duke-Connecticut regular-season game is all that is missing between these two teams. Connecticut has played home-and-home games with Arizona, North Carolina, Indiana and, according to Calhoun, could be setting one up with Kentucky next season.
Calhoun usually wants two high-profile home-and-home series games each season. This season UConn gets LSU at home and is at Indiana (both games being TV-driven). Connecticut, when it can, gets into a high-profile exempted event, and this year is in the high-buzz Maui Invitational, where the Huskies will play Arkansas, then Kansas/Arizona and then likely Gonzaga, Maryland or Michigan State, all in three consecutive days.
December is usually light, with the Huskies rarely leaving the state, save for the occasional trip to UMass, which Calhoun said may not occur again (UMass plays at UConn this season). Calhoun said he would go home-and-home with Rhode Island because of his relationship with Jim Baron.
"Every game has to have a purpose," Calhoun said. "We'll always have five or six games to build confidence [i.e. guarantee games], but we're trying to get games that will help us. ... In those games I want to find somebody who might slow it down, throw a zone or matchup at us. We don't want to just have teams that will run with us."
UConn regularly shows some serious thought in scheduling, but the Huskies are not as obsessive as Duke.
The Blue Devils schedule games where there is a traditional Duke alumni base. That's why you'll see at least one game a year in the New York-New Jersey area. This season, Duke plays Texas at the Meadowlands and next season they will be at St. John's.
Duke also gets schools from mid- or low-major conferences that either want to play in Cameron Indoor Stadium or could end up being first-round opponents in the NCAA Tournament. That's why Bucknell, Davidson and Penn come calling this season.
Also, the Blue Devils look at where the NCAA and ACC tournament sites are before scheduling. That's why Duke is playing at UNC-Greensboro (site of the ACC tournament and an NCAA subregional), at Georgetown (site of the NCAA Tournament's D.C. regional), and at Temple (at the Wachovia Center, also a subregional site).
Who schedules smarter? A slight edge to Duke. Calhoun said he never has considered where the NCAA sites are located in scheduling because that hasn't been an issue for the Huskies. Duke does and whether or not it helps is a moot point. The Blue Devils clearly map out the year with the intent of preparing itself to get to the Final Four every step of the way.
Gonzaga vs. Charlotte
Gonzaga doesn't have an easy time scheduling, but Charlotte would love to trade places.
The Zags didn't used to get teams into the Kennel. Now Gonzaga is able to pull it off on a regular basis, this season alone getting Virginia, Saint Joseph's and Stanford to visit. The Stanford game will also be the site of ESPN's College Gameday -- a first for the school.
The Zags also play a traditional home-and-home slate with Washington and Washington State and typically play one high-profile game in Seattle, this time a return game with Oklahoma State after beating the Cowboys in Oklahoma City last season.
Gonzaga usually plays a few true road games and this season is no exception with trips to Memphis and Saint Louis (parts of home-and-home series). The Zags also usually get at least one neutral-site made-for-TV game. This season they don't because they're in the Maui Invitational.
"We keep TV in mind, always looking for exposure and RPI-type of games," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
The Zags can get the games, which is the big difference right now between them and the 49ers.
Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz said the 49ers never have been asked to be in Maui, the Jimmy V Classic (which Gonzaga was in) "or anything like that." The offers might come more now that the 49ers are out from under the Louisville-Cincinnati umbrella of Conference USA and into the Atlantic 10. Still, the phone isn't ringing from the major tournaments.
Charlotte is in the BCA Classic, an exempted event this season at Wyoming. But it's not nationally televised and the overall field lacks a Top 25 presence. Playing road games at Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia Southern is a scheduling reality. The 49ers do play at Rutgers and host Indiana and Mississippi State prior to New Year's and are at Wake Forest in February. Lutz said the only high-major schools prior to this season that would schedule them were Indiana and Alabama. Meanwhile, the return game against Wake Forest will be at the Charlotte Bobcats' facility, not Charlotte's campus, in 2006-07.
"We're one of 22 schools that has been to seven of the last nine NCAAs," Lutz said. "We consistently get into the Tournament and put out a good product, but we can't get into those games."
Who schedules smarter? Gonzaga, because the Zags get the phone calls (and the national media attention) that Charlotte desperately wants, but never receives.
Old Dominion vs. Northern Iowa
Nonconference scheduling can get a mid-major school in or out of the NCAA Tournament during the at-large selection process, and UNI has a built-in advantage over most. The Panthers get games every season against Iowa and Iowa State, rotating one of them at home each season.
"There's no legislation that says they have to play us, but Steve Alford [of Iowa] and Wayne Morgan [of Iowa State] continue to agree to play the series," UNI coach Greg McDermott said.
Who else of that ilk came through Cedar Falls? No one.
"I've been here five years and no one else from those leagues [the high-major ones] outside of Iowa and Iowa State has or has wanted to play here," McDermott said.
What would happen if they didn't have those in-state games?
"It would be virtually impossible to get [anyone of the calber]," McDermott said.
The rest of UNI's schedule is a hodge-podge. The Bracket Buster event got a home-and-home series going with MAC sqaud Western Michigan. UNI also is in an exempted event, playing at LSU in the Las Vegas Invitational before playing Dayton in of the two scripted games in Las Vegas.
Old Dominion would love to have a written or even verbal agreement that it plays Virginia and Virginia Tech every season at alternating sites, but that's not happening, although Virginia Tech is playing ODU this season in Norfolk. ODU also got decent games against DePaul, East Carolina and at Richmond and UAB. The Monarchs are also in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they're playing Georgia, Fordham and then possibly Wisconsin.
"We don't do guarantees," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "We play people home-and-home. But we've had to wait until the end of July sometimes for schools to say they'll finally play us. We've called Villanova, Georgetown, Auburn, ACC schools -- they don't want to play us home-and-home."
The Monarchs won the CAA's automatic berth last season, so they didn't have to rely on scheduling to get them a bid. But scheduling could play a role in a possible at-large candidacy this season.
"It seems to be that, in our state, we were the best team last year," Taylor said of ODU's 28-6 record and a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan State. "Schools want to play the best teams. Dave Leitao agreed to play us when he was at DePaul, [but] I'm not predicting that will happen [now that he's at Virginia] anytime soon."
ODU's doesn't have as many potential NCAA teams on the schedule as Northern Iowa. That's due, in part, to some of the schools on ODU's schedule (DePaul, Richmond, Georgia, ECU) being down.
Who schedules smarter? In this case, it may be who is more fortunate, as UNI gets two perennial upper-level Big Ten/Big 12 teams on its schedule every season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Who does the better jobs at scheduling? Andy Katz examines four case studies of similar programs.