- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Sitting in the small corner room that doubles as the place for postgame news conferences at Marist's McCann Center, itself an unassuming building tucked away on the edge of campus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale looked beat.
Victorious, relieved and content, to be sure, but also beat -- as if she had lived each of the 45 preceding minutes of basketball in a way that even the players running up and down the court in front of a cacophonous full house couldn't fathom.
Her nationally ranked Sooners had just escaped with an overtime win against the hosts, needing a career night from the 3-point line from steady senior Nyeshia Stevenson to first force the extra session, then eventually earn the win. This wasn't a case of the Sooners' coming out flat or taking an opponent for granted -- they practiced with intensity the night before and came out playing hard. As Coale suggested, wherever a program such as Marist is in the subjective Division I pecking order, the Red Foxes objectively play basketball at an extremely high level.
Her team was better for the experience. So was the sport. And both truths mattered.
"I know why people don't want to come here, though; it's stinkin' hard to win," Coale said after the game. "It's really hard to win here. Yet at the same time, in a philosophical way, I feel like it's part of our job. When you become one of the big guys, part of your job is to help fill arenas and build programs that are trying to do what you're doing."
Looking just as drained, slightly more downcast but no less fulfilled, Marist coach Brian Giorgis credited Coale's willingness to come to Poughkeepsie as part of a home-and-home series (Marist played in Norman, Okla., the season before). Unfortunately for women's basketball, she deserved the praise. Trips like Oklahoma's are too rare for a sport in which scheduling is too often shameful.
"If we're going to try and grow our game like everybody talks about it's time schools start to step up and play home-and-homes," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said after a November road game at Hartford -- a game his young Cardinals lost decisively.
As conference play heats up around the nation, places such as Poughkeepsie; Brookings, S.D.; Green Bay, Wis.; and so many others will fade out of the basketball spotlight. You can spend some enjoyable hours watching Marist play Canisius or Green Bay play Cleveland State, but in a world of limited resources, those pairings aren't going to find much love when played in the shadow of Connecticut versus Notre Dame or Baylor versus Texas A&M.
Mid-majors need the spotlight provided by marquee games in November and December. And now and again, it's nice if the home fans savor that spotlight.
The Big East has some models of admirable scheduling -- Walz went to Hartford and Dayton this season. Georgetown played at Missouri State and James Madison. DePaul played at Green Bay and at Illinois State. But the conference is also home to examples of what's wrong. To earn its 14-1 record and its place in the Top 25, Syracuse played one road nonconference game, two at a neutral site over Thanksgiving and 10 at home. Give Cuse some latitude for catching Old Dominion in a down season, but as of Jan. 12, only one of those 13 opponents -- Butler -- had a winning record.
And if the Orange are an extreme example, within the conference and nationally, they aren't out there on their own. Too many programs in the "big six" -- the so-called BCS conferences -- aren't willing to go on the road and both challenge themselves and give the sport a chance to grow. Maybe that's an easy thing to say in talking about someone else's job, and a new contract that might depend on having wins to show off. But I have yet to meet anyone who cares about women's basketball -- coaching it or covering it -- who lists job security as one of the sport's primary perks.
"What's so impressive about [C. Vivian Stringer's] 800 wins and Coach [Pat] Summitt's 1,000 wins -- those wins are against great schedules," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said after a recent game at Rutgers. "And there's a lot of people with a lot of wins that don't play good teams. Obviously, I'm a fan of playing tough people. I'm a fan of playing on the road. I think people should have to go to Green Bay. They're trying to make a program up there, too."
Bruno's answer is to have the NCAA mandate equal schedules, 14 home games and 14 away games for everyone. Giorgis said that "everybody kind of laughed" when Bruno brought that up at an NCAA convention last year, but the odds such a proposal would face from big schools all too comfortable with their current arrangement don't mean it's a bad idea. At the very least, it's a starting point for the discussion.
"I think it would be the greatest idea because it would force some of these schools to come and play you at your place," Giorgis said. "We're struggling to find two more games next year. We've even talked about going to other people's places."
One of those teams that came to Poughkeepsie was Bowling Green, albeit as part of the Preseason WNIT. Perennial favorite in the MAC, a conference that has essentially no chance of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament most seasons, Bowling Green has tried to boost its nonconference schedule under coach Curt Miller. That took the Falcons on the road nine times before January this season, including a stretch of 27 days in December in which they played six of seven games on the road.
Forget persuading schools from the major conferences to come to northern Ohio for home-and-home series against one of the best mid-major programs out there; Miller can't entice anyone to make the trip. By his count, he has sent out about 270 e-mails and mailings to Division I teams in search of future home games.
"I've gotten two return calls -- out of 270 schools that I've asked," Miller said. "And I would give them $15,000 just to get a home game so we don't have to have a year again where we play nine road games before the new year."
So programs such as Bowling Green, Green Bay, Marist, Middle Tennessee, South Dakota State and others too often are left in a no-win situation, trading two home games elsewhere for one at their place, hitting the road like characters out of an unpublished Arthur Miller play or playing schedules that help neither their NCAA tournament profile nor their local profile. And fans everywhere get to see more early blowouts and fewer games like the one Oklahoma and Marist played on a cold night in Poughkeepsie.
That's not the way it should be. And every coach knows it, even if too few are willing to pack their bags and do something about it.
"Back in the day, around 2000, 2001, Connecticut came to Oklahoma and we sold out our arena and people fell in love with the way our kids competed and worked," Coale said. "And [the fans] kept coming back no matter who we were playing against. And we feel like we need to give some of that back, even if it puts us in a tough situation."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.