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Horizon League should seek all challengers

Springtime is one of the longest parts of the year for a college basketball fan. Heading into May, you know that you’re five months away from the season. Basketball is a month behind you, recruiting is largely done, and the coaching carousel has all but settled until next season. So when your #1 team is a college basketball team, you’re as thirsty as a bamboo tree in the desert. Anything and everything could be news. It’s the time when you can expect discussions to focus on rotations and next year’s recruiting and even other sports – anything to keep the conversation going.

Of all the off-season nothingness going on, however, there’s nothing more interesting to fans than scheduling (realignment notwithstanding). This is especially true of mid-majors and low-majors whose fans don’t have a laundry list of well-known schools ready for them in the conference schedule. Non-conference scheduling is important. It’s also damn near the hardest thing any coaching staff has to do in a given year.

If you had to break down the 350+ Division I basketball teams, the schools that have probably the most difficult job scheduling are those that fit between 75 and 200 in the RPI. That’s doubly true when you have a lot of players returning from the year before. Why, you ask? It’s because you’re just too good for some teams.

Take a team like Illinois. Under John Groce, the Illini are 38-10 in the non-conference over three years. Real good, right? Well, they’re only 24-30 in the Big Ten since Groce came over from Ohio. So when they’re looking to schedule teams in the non-conference, they’re looking to schedule victories. Their fans don’t know the difference between UIC and Chicago State, so whether it’s a mid-major or a low-major is of no consequence. What they don’t want to do is schedule the team who is going to beat them. So while UIC and Chicago State might be good shots for scheduling, a team like Milwaukee – who returns all but their senior point guard and has a solid recruiting class – is someone the Illini will want to stay away from. So Milwaukee, who may be looking to schedule a team like Illinois, can’t do so because the Illini don’t want to bring someone to Champaign who might actually beat them.

This was part of the problem for Green Bay in the last two years. They lucked into a game against Miami (FL) this year, and they took advantage. But if it weren’t for their relationship with Tony Bennett, the Phoenix would have been left with only Wisconsin on their schedule as far as mid-majors go – a game that would be on the schedule regardless. This comes in their best two years since their Golden Age of the mid-90’s, where they are basically untouchable when it comes to high-majors looking to fill out their schedule.

What it comes down to is a lot of quality mid-majors unable to build a quality RPI because of very few games against high RPI high-majors. This is a big deal for schools who have NCAA Tournament aspirations, as the RPI not only is a big deal for at-large berths to the Big Dance but also for seeding once you’re in the field. That’s a big deal. We need more mid-majors to make the tournament, but when the NCAA’s big guns are holding court and scheduling easy victories, quality teams get left holding the bag. The 2014 Phoenix should have been an NCAA Tournament team, but their lack of a second quality victory kept them from building a quality strength of schedule.

So what can you do? The high-majors hold all the cards. Scheduling is going to be difficult for these high quality mid-majors, and that’s not going to change as long as things stay the way they are.

They shouldn’t stay that way, though. Schools and conferences should get together to figure out how to schedule better, and they should take a leaf out of the high-majors’ book.

That’s not to say that they should only schedule the crappiest of low-majors. Instead, look to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

While that came about to get college basketball a marketable television event in the beginning of the season, mid-majors should use it to build as much as half their non-conference schedule. That’s right – of 14 or so non-conference games, as many as seven should come from challenges against other conferences.

Conferences became a thing to ease scheduling concerns. Decades later, we don’t need massive 30-team conferences – we need challenges. These challenges should be borne out of a caucus of the best eight to ten mid-major conferences in the country, and they should do it to make sure the best teams in each conference have high quality, top 100 opponents all over their schedule.

Sometimes these great match-ups come about themselves. Milwaukee played Northern Iowa in a 2-for-2, Murray State played Valpo, great games have been had. But they’re not enough. Teams need to admit that scheduling is difficult enough that it’s time the conferences pick up some heavy lifting. What would come out of a Sun Belt/C-USA Challenge? Old Dominion against Georgia State would have resulted in a great throwback to the CAA games and built up their non-conference SOS.

The MAC has had somewhat of a renaissance, finishing 10th in the RPI this year. What would a challenge with the Horizon League do for them? Or for us, for that matter? All it could result in is stronger strengths of schedule up and down mid-majordom, giving us a better chance at the seeds our teams need to challenge for the NCAA title.

There is the possibility of exposing some pretenders, to be sure. But if you’re a pretender in the early season, then we’re not talking about you come March anyways. You still have the conference tournament to win.

In the meantime, the teams that are good enough will find themselves with several more quality victories heading into Selection Sunday. A clearer road to the NCAA Title or even an at-large is better than nothing at all, which is what happened to Green Bay in 2014.

So here is my call to arms – to the conference commissioners of the following leagues – schedule challenges, pit your best teams against those from other conferences. Take the monkey off your coaches’ backs and get them the quality match-ups they need to build a quality resume for March. These are the conferences I’m talking to:

Horizon League

Mid-American Conference

West Coast Conference

Mountain West Conference

Conference USA

Patriot League

Sun Belt Conference

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Ohio Valley Conference

Colonial Athletic Conference

Now, not all of these conferences will want to be in the discussion. But those that do, and come out with challenges in place? They’ll have their schedules done before anyone else, and they’ll be quality schedules at that.

Think the Horizon League should push for challenges all over? Use the hashtag #HLOpenChallenge on Twitter and let’s get the discussion started!

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