When college basketball games get postponed, where will schools turn? Hopefully to their neighbors and the 1950s

Schools used to play both games in a non-conference, home-and-home series in the same season against regional opponents

In the span of 48 hours during Week 2 of the college football season, Baylor and Houston scheduled a game in 18 hours and Army’s athletic director took to Twitter to announce, “Undefeated, COVID negative college football team from NY looking for like minded, disciplined team for a date next Saturday.”

The college football season and its 11th-hour cancellations, its on-the-fly scheduling of replacement games, and its administrators shamelessly taking to social media to find a dancing partner for their team are some of the realities of college football scheduling in 2020.

All of that will soon be college basketball’s reality, too, if it’s not already.

There are 130 FBS football teams that compete at the highest level of the sport and only 42 of them played a game through Week 2 of the season, 76 had played through Week 6 and 102 schools played their first game by Week 8. As of Thursday night, 44 games have been postponed or canceled this season.

Now imagine the musical chairs of college basketball scheduling when the number of chairs in the room has tripled or quadrupled, and when the vinyl record that’s playing old-timey swing music is replaced with an aux chord that’s connected to an iPhone X that’s playing an EDM remix that a highly caffeinated 19-year-old posted on SoundCloud.

With college football’s postponements, cancellations and replacement games as a reference point, that’s what the college basketball season could be like from a scheduling perspective, with 356 Division I men’s basketball programs and 354 DI women’s programs (Bethune-Cookman has already announced it won’t compete in spring sports, including basketball). Each of those 700-plus programs typically plays two or three games per week, too, rather than the one-game-per-week scheduling of college football.

Plus, basketball is played indoors, with the college season scheduled to tip off amid the height of flu season, as COVID-19 cases are increasing throughout the country. You can also make the case that the composition of DI college basketball programs – from No. 1 to No. 357 – is probably more akin to the FCS schools and conferences that decided not to play football this fall, or to the Group of Five schools and conferences that have been most affected by postponements and cancellations, rather than Power Five schools.

Ohio State has the resources for daily testing.

Northwestern State might not.

Over the summer, when I was reporting another newsletter, Ken Pomeroy, the mastermind behind kenpom.com, told Out of Bounds in an email, “I think people are in denial about how many cancellations there will be and programs are going to be looking to find games with other healthy teams based on opportunity, whether they are conference games or not.”

That email was sent on July 7, a day when there were 54,084 new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., per The New York Times, and that also was months before numerous Orlando-based multi-team events (MTEs) were canceled by ESPN after the parties involved couldn’t agree upon testing protocols. On Wednesday, Nov. 4, the U.S. had 107,872 new cases, reaching six figures for the first time and nearly doubling the country’s daily totals from early July.

In September, the NCAA Division I Council announced men’s and women’s basketball teams can play up to 27 regular-season games, with a minimum of 13 games required for NCAA tournament consideration. The DI Men's and Women’s Basketball committees recommended teams play a minimum of four non-conference games.

Out of Bounds learned one scheduling option considered by the Ohio Valley Conference’s men’s basketball coaches was a 22-game, round-robin conference schedule. For the last three seasons, the 12-team conference played an 18-game schedule, but a 22-game conference slate was an option “that would eliminate the need to find four non-conference games,” according to one OVC coach.

But what happens when a conference game is postponed, or just canceled outright, due to players testing positive for COVID-19 or due to contact tracing?

As Pomeroy said, “programs are going to be looking to find games with other healthy teams based on opportunity, whether they are conference games or not.”

Did you know that college basketball teams used to play both games in a home-and-home series against regional, non-conference opponents in the same season?

By modern scheduling practices, it’d be considered unorthodox but it’s a creative scheduling option for directors of basketball operations and associate athletic directors to consider this winter if one or more of their opponents can’t play a game as scheduled due to COVID-19. This season, there will almost certainly be a steady trickle of games called off, followed by last-minute replacement games scheduled against regional opponents, and the home-and-home aspect of this proposal could alleviate potential concerns about scheduling equity and it could limit the number of opposing schools with whom a team would need to negotiate testing protocols.

If teams want to plan ahead for potential postponements and cancellations, they’d be have smart to have a few regional opponents on their short list, even if it’s just a handshake agreement that both teams hope never materializes.

(As a very shameless plug, the last college basketball scheduling model proposed by Out of Bounds in July is being used by the America East, ASUN, Big Sky, Big South, Conference USA, The Summit League and WAC, and it’s reportedly being considered by the Horizon League and NEC. Correlation absolutely doesn’t imply causation, but among those conferences listed above, one conference’s commissioner and another conference’s deputy commissioner follow my work, and I pitched the idea to a third conference above that said it hadn’t previously looked into the feasibility of the model and now it’s using it, so you never know. Very shameless plug over.)

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Time for a quick history lesson.

In the 1950-51 season, Kentucky’s men’s basketball team played a home-and-home series against both DePaul and Xavier – two programs that were independent at the time. The Wildcats traveled to New York to play St. John’s inside Madison Square Garden that season, which was their furthest non-conference road trip, but their two other non-conference road games were to Chicago and Cincinnati as part of those home-and-home series.

Kentucky’s same-season home-and-homes with Xavier and DePaul continued through 1955 and 1956, respectively. Later, there were in-season, home-and-home series between Kentucky and Loyola Chicago in 1957 and ‘58.

UCLA and Santa Clara played an in-season home-and-home series in the 1950 season and a home/neutral-site series during the fall of 1954. Duke and Temple played in their season opener in December 1951, then again in January. When Duke joined the ACC but Virginia Tech was still in the Southern Conference, the Blue Devils and Hokies played each other, home and away, in January and February of 1954.

OK, you get the point.

Some of the most accomplished programs in the history of the sport used to play in-season, home-and-home series against regional opponents, often with the second game coming in the middle of conference play. If this scheduling approach worked for John Wooden, then surely it could work for some coaches and schedule-makers during a pandemic.

If a date opens up for a school this winter due to a postponement or cancellation, and if the school’s conference schedule is set in stone, finding a nearby, healthy team that also has an open date could be an appealing option for athletes and coaches who already had their 2020 NCAA tournament canceled and their 2021 season modified, for athletic directors who want to maximize TV revenue as well as the number of games for their players and fans, and for television broadcast partners who will have lots of TV inventory that could be subject to frequent changes this season.

Playing a non-conference opponent during conference play could require the sign-off from the conference office due to the potential of schools operating under different protocols, but with NCAA tournament resumes and, probably more importantly from a bottom-line perspective, TV revenue at stake, that may not an insurmountable hurdle.

Even after ESPN canceled the Orlando-based MTEs, ESPN Senior Manager for Programming & Events Jeff Wilson told the schools that were scheduled to play in the now-canceled events to keep ESPN informed of newly formed events.

“ESPN remains committed to providing television opportunities for quality non-conference basketball games and events,” he wrote in an email, so there’d definitely be a market for high-profile, non-conference games.

After the announcement that the college basketball season wouldn’t start until Nov. 25, non-conference scheduling has been completely overhauled – at least once – for many programs. Then there’s the Ivy League and Patriot League, which aren’t scheduled to tip off until at least Jan. 1.

As we’ve learned from college football, and even the last two months in the world of college basketball scheduling, just because a game is announced, doesn’t mean it will be played. That’s why directors of basketball operations and athletic directors should have every DI opponent within a three-hour radius on speed dial.

If a college basketball scheduling proposal for this season sounds outlandish, whether it comes from a conference commissioner, an exasperated mid-major head coach, a writer or an anonymous Reddit user, there’s a pretty good chance some version of it has already happened in the sport’s history, and if it hasn’t, then something crazier probably has happened.

In 1951, Kentucky played a regular season game against Loyola Chicago in between the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament, and without it, the Wildcats would’ve been off for 16 days in a row in between the two tournaments. The Wildcats played a similar one-off game against Marquette in between the 1961 SEC tournament and 1961 NCAA tournament.

If the college football and NFL seasons have (hopefully) taught college basketball schedule-makers anything, it’s that they should probably plan for an open week (or two) on the back end of their regular season schedules, in order to make up games that were previously postponed or to schedule new games in order to meet the threshold for the minimum number of games played to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Out of Bounds has learned that the Big Ten reached out to the conference’s athletic directors for feedback regarding a scheduling option in which the conference schedule could be front-loaded with schools potentially playing three to five Big Ten games in December in order to allow for more time to reschedule games later in the season.

We may not see a Kentucky-Loyola Chicago matchup in between the SEC tournament and NCAA tournament, but whatever creative scheduling ideas we do see may not be far off, either.

Thanks to this user-created map on Google Maps that was created a few years ago, we can see where 351 of the now-357 Division I men’s basketball programs are located relative to one another, which could come in handy for scheduling replacement games.

As you can tell, scheduling games on the fly could be more challenging for schools that are east of San Diego, north of Dallas and west of Kansas City, but for most other DI programs, their geography is advantageous to finding potential regional opponents.

Just look at the Eastern Seaboard, where many schools wouldn’t have to leave their city to be able to play multiple DI opponents.

In college football – a sport that has historically scheduled games so far in advance that the players who will actually take the field are often only three or four-years-old when the ink dries on the game contracts – we’ve seen programs schedule non-conference games on the fly for this season.

Sometimes in a matter of days. Sometimes in a matter of hours.

The margins are often so razor-thin in college football – the margins of a non-conference strength of schedule and overall record in regards to making the College Football Playoff, the margins for making a bowl game, the margins for Power Five programs scheduling enough home games to make their athletic department’s budget work and the margins for Group of Five and FCS schools scheduling the right guarantee games in order to fund their athletic departments.

That’s not to say college basketball doesn’t require it’s own smart scheduling, but in a sport with 12 regular-season games, scheduling one “wrong” opponent could completely change a team’s fortunes – literally and figuratively.

If college football programs can schedule games just weeks, if not days, before kickoff, surely college basketball, with a longer season, more games and a larger pool of potential opponents, can do the same.

Remember ESPN’s BracketBusters, when some of the best mid-major teams in the country would play each other on the same weekend in February?

The event stopped after the 2012-13 season, ending a 10-year run of giving national TV exposure and the chance for quality wins for programs that weren’t always guaranteed those opportunities.

Now, imagine a whole season of BracketBuster-type scheduling and matchups, but across all levels of the sport, with no telling when these games will pop up, who will be playing in them and where they’ll be played.

Amid a generally awful year, in a very small, sports-centric way, that kind of scheduling environment sounds like something of a comforting silver lining for college basketball fans, right?

When schools have been given the chance to rework their non-conference schedules, we’ve seen programs run to newly created regional MTEs, like the one hosted by Louisville that will be attended by schools including Duquesne, Little Rock, Prairie View A&M, Southern Illinois, UNC Greensboro, Winthrop and Western Kentucky. If schools are choosing to schedule schools that are only a bus ride away when they’re presented with other options, then why wouldn’t they do the same when they have no other options?

Like many Americans have done in the last eight months, college basketball programs might see their plans fall apart due to the pandemic, forcing them to call up their neighbors at the last minute.

“Hey, well, we’re free and you’re around, too, so let’s have a bonfire at our house tonight, then maybe we can grill out on your back porch next week.”

Where will college basketball teams turn when their games get postponed or canceled this upcoming season?

Hopefully to their neighbors and the 1950s.

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Recap of the last newsletter

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“In November 2019, Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard sent Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, who’s also the co-chair of the NCAA Board of Governors Federal and State Legislation Working Group, a document that summarized an NIL model developed by Iowa State, which proposed that when an athlete signs a financial aid agreement, he or she would choose to receive either room, board, books, tuition and cost-of-attendance stipends, or the freedom to monetize his or her NIL – but not both.”

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.