If you follow college football on a regular basis, at least as something more than a merely casual fan, you know that one of the many issues connected to the arrangement of the sport is the length of conference schedules.
The SEC — as the most prominent conference in college football — has bandied about the idea of moving to a nine-game conference schedule. The Pac-12 and Big 12 already use a nine-game conference schedule, and in the Big 12’s case, the nine-game schedule is a round-robin, since there are only 10 teams in the league.
The larger point encompassing the “eight-or-nine-game conference schedule” debate in college football is simply this: College football has not created an even playing field in terms of establishing both the frameworks within which teams compete, and — accordingly — the standards they are supposed to meet each season. In a season that’s only 12 games long (not including conference championship games), it’s a pretty big deal if some teams have to play nine conference games and others have to play only eight, which consequently means that some teams get to schedule four non-conference games while others schedule only three.
This issue — the length of conference seasons — gains a lot of attention in college football, primarily because of the short season and the sport’s popularity. In college basketball, this issue doesn’t receive nearly as much attention, and moreover, it’s reasonable to claim that it shouldn’t receive any attention at all. College basketball’s regular season (not including the conference tournaments) runs roughly 30 games, two and a half times college football’s 12-game number. Non-conference seasons include at least 10 games for every team. There’s more room in which to craft a schedule and play a wide(r) cross-section of opponents.
Also, consider this: Conference seasons in college basketball will necessarily be even-numbered, whereas college football’s central debate is between eight or nine conference games. College basketball is a sport that is played more than once a week by its teams — twice, generally. Whereas college football must necessarily rotate home and away schedules each year, college basketball can — and does — involve home-and-home conference schedules for many of its teams each season. You’re not going to achieve full round-robin (home-and-away) schedules in the larger conferences, but conference schedules of 16 or 18 games will be able to encompass a number of home-and-homes.
The length of conference seasons might not be an issue in college basketball from this standpoint as well: The conference tournaments, unlike the conference championship games in football, are open to every team in the conference, or at least the vast majority of teams in a given conference. Almost every team in a conference gets to play one postseason game.
We get back to the heart of this examination: Why should there be any debate about the length of a conference season in college basketball?
Here’s why this issue demands a fresh assessment: The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, otherwise known as the MAAC, just decided a conference tournament (and NCAA tournament representative) after marching its teams through a 20-game conference season.
Look at this standings page for college basketball’s conferences in 2015. You will see that most conferences use either 18- or 16-game schedules. A few smaller conferences use 14-game schedules (seven opponents played twice), and two conferences use 20-game schedules, the Sun Belt and the MAAC.
The Sun Belt’s tournament is later this week. The MAAC tournament was decided Monday night, as Iona — the top seed and the regular-season champion — lost to third-seeded Manhattan, a team it swept in the regular season.
It’s instructive to point out that Iona will not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Gaels did not accomplish enough in non-conference play to offset the loss of an automatic bid. This brings up the point: With a 20-game conference season in the MAAC, Iona did not have as many chances to schedule out of conference. Perhaps the Gaels could have played a game at, say, Wichita State or Iowa. A win in such a hypothetical game would have improved Iona’s profile. Give the Gaels yet another chance to schedule out of conference, and they could have bolstered their resume to an even greater extent.
The MAAC went to a 20-game regular-season schedule because it was a round-robin schedule. All 11 teams in the league played their 10 opponents twice. There is a certain nobility in playing everyone twice, but at what cost?
Iona didn’t go unbeaten in its conference the way Murray State (Ohio Valley) and North Carolina Central (MEAC) did, but the Gaels did go 17-3 and won the MAAC by two games over Rider. Yet, Iona had to play three conference tournament games. The Sun Belt — the other 20-game conference league — at least gives its top two seeds a bye into the semifinals for its conference tournament. That’s good, but I dare say the conferences can (and should) do better.
Here’s something for the MAAC in particular (but also the Sun Belt) to consider:
If you play a 20-game conference season, your regular-season champion should get a bye into the conference tournament final and host the game. The previous rounds can all be held at a neutral site to draw ticket sales and neutral-site excitement.
For the power conferences, winning an 18-game regular season should bring about a quarterfinal bye into the semifinals. After all, having to play three games in three days could leave a power-conference team drained heading into the NCAA tournament, especially if it must play at a Thursday-Saturday site on the first weekend.
For the smaller (one-bid) conferences, winning an 18-game regular season should at least result in a bye into the semifinals, if not the final. Such a long and grueling campaign ought to lead to greater protections in the conference tournament. An 18-game slate might be long enough to mean that a multiple-bye into the final should be merited. It definitely should for 20-game seasons; 18 games is the true debate in terms of a multiple-bye.
For conferences with 16 regular-season games, a bye into the semifinals for the champion seems appropriate, though probably not into the final, because the shorter conference season means that a league’s member schools did in fact receive more non-conference opportunities.
College football’s conference seasons have already been discussed to a considerable extent. It’s time to give fresh consideration to the issue in college basketball, even though these sports and their postseasons operate under different constraints and in highly contrasting contexts.