Last season marked the debut of the Big Ten’s 20-game conference schedule, the ACC will follow suit next season and the Pac-12 will implement the change the year after that, which means many power conference teams will play two fewer non-conference games annually for the foreseeable future.
Now consider the recently announced scheduling alliance between the AAC and SEC, where four teams from each conference will schedule a two-year, home-and-home series, and the inaugural Big 12-Big East Challenge that starts in the fall, plus the other established conference series like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Big 12/SEC Challenge and the Gavitt Tipoff Games (Big Ten vs. Big East).
College basketball’s power conferences are further separating themselves from the rest of the sport.
With 11-game non-conference schedules last season (10 in the case of Rutgers), Big Ten teams improved their non-conference strength of schedule, according to kenpom.com, by an average of 57 spots from 2018.
The biggest reason for this improvement was that with two fewer non-conference games, Big Ten programs scheduled significantly fewer games against sub-300 competition.
In the Big Ten’s 181 non-conference games during the 2017-18 season, 41 games were against opponents that finished the season ranked No. 300 or worse on kenpom.com. Those matchups made up 22.6 percent of the Big Ten’s non-conference matchups.
Last season, just 13.7 percent (21 of 153 non-conference games) of the Big Ten’s non-conference games were against teams that were ranked 300th or worse at the end of the year – roughly a nine percent decrease from the 2018 season.
Only one school, Iowa, played three or more games against sub-300 competition last winter, while half of the teams in the conference had one or none of those matchups.
There were roughly five-percent increases from the 2018 season to 2019 in the Big Ten’s number of non-conference games scheduled against opponents that were ranked from No. 51-100 and No. 101-150, while there was less than a one-percent change in the number of games scheduled against opponents ranked No. 1-50, No. 151-200 and No. 201-299.
Here’s the complete breakdown for the Big Ten and its scheduling practices in 2018 and 2019.
|Opponent Ranking (kenpom.com)||2018 Non-Conference Games (181 total)||2019 Non-Conference Games (153 total)||2018 %||2019 %|
At least in the one-season sample size available for the 2018-19 season, Big Ten teams cut back on their number of matchups against low-end competition and placed a heavier emphasis on scheduling games against teams that would likely finish the season ranked between No. 50 and No. 150, meaning good but not great opponents that would boost a program’s strength of schedule while still representing winnable games.
What are some examples of teams that fell in that range last season?
Hofstra (No. 76 NET/No. 93 kenpom.com), Utah (No. 97/No. 109), Jacksonville State (No. 125/No. 110), Radford (No. 137/No. 122) and Ball State (No. 133/No. 133) each traveled to face at least one Big Ten foe last winter.
Teams of that ilk might represent the sweet spot moving forward for high-major athletic directors, coaches and directors of basketball operations who want their scheduling to be rewarded in the NET rankings, on kenpom.com and in other computer rankings, but who also don’t want to add an unreasonable non-conference burden for their teams on top of a 20-game league schedule in a power conference.
Looking back at the Big Ten last season, cutting down on 300-plus-ranked opponents while reprioritizing games against top-150 competition paid off for many teams in the conference.
Nine Big Ten schools improved their non-conference strength of schedule from 2018 to 2019, including three with jumps of at least 150 spots in the rankings, according to kenpom.com.
|School||2018 Ranking||2019 Ranking||Difference|
Between an increased number of conference games in the ACC and Big Ten, as well as more non-conference series and alliances between power conferences, there are fewer non-conference games that schools are responsible for scheduling.
Most power conferences have at least one annual non-conference series with another power conference and some have two.
They’re listed below.
- AAC: (1) AAC-SEC scheduling alliance
- ACC: (1) ACC-Big Ten Challenge
- Big 12: (1) Big 12/SEC Challenge, (2) Big 12-Big East Challenge
- Big East: (1) Gavitt Tipoff Games, (2) Big 12-Big East Challenge
- Big Ten: (1) ACC-Big Ten Challenge, (2) Gavitt Tipoff Games
- SEC: (1) Big 12/SEC Challenge, (2) AAC-SEC scheduling alliance
Sure, not every team in those conferences participates in every series (e.g. the scheduling alliance between the AAC and SEC features just four yet-to-be-named teams from each conference and the Gavitt Tipoff Games is an annual eight-game series, which means six Big Ten and two Big East teams don’t participate each year).
But the larger point remains: There are fewer non-conference games available to be scheduled at a school’s discretion.
For college basketball as an entity – one that can be slow to find its footing, nightly or weekly, among casual, national sports fans in November and December, when the college football and NFL seasons are reaching a crescendo – this trend towards a higher number of high-impact, non-conference games isn’t a bad thing.
Replacing lopsided non-conference games with more high-profile matchups is good for TV ratings and fan bases that crave marquee non-conference home games as part of their season ticket packages.
But in the future, those high-profile non-conference games might largely be limited to neutral-site events and pre-arranged power conference series, like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Of the Big Ten’s 30 non-conference games played against a top-50 opponent last season, just seven matchups were scheduled as part of a home-and-home series.
The rest were arranged through tournaments — events and series like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Gavitt Tipoff Games or Maui Invitational — or the rare exception of a one-off game like Purdue-Belmont, which featured a Bruins team that made the NCAA Tournament and finished the year at No. 49 on kenpom.com.
Of the seven home-and-home series between a Big Ten team and a top-50 opponent, four had local or regional ties, like Wisconsin-Marquette, Iowa-Iowa State, Ohio State-Cincinnati and Indiana-Louisville.
Home-and-home series like Michigan State-Florida, Purdue-Texas and Northwestern-Oklahoma won’t become extinct, but they might end up on the endangered species list.
Notable non-conference tournaments like the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis allow teams to play three non-conference games in a week, usually against strong competition. For an ACC or Big Ten team with just 10 or 11 non-conference games available in a season, a three-game non-conference tournament represents more than a quarter of its out-of-conference slate.
On average, Big Ten teams played 2.1 games against top-50 opponents, according to kenpom.com, during non-conference play last season. If they’re potentially playing two elite opponents as part of a three-game tournament, the incentive to schedule ambitiously for its remaining six or seven non-conference games could decrease.
(From the standpoint of those within a school’s leadership structure who want to set up their team to make the NCAA Tournament, how could you blame them for taking the foot off the gas when rounding out the final games of the next season’s non-conference schedule? Most teams enter Selection Sunday with a 33 or 34-game resume, so it’d be borderline irresponsible to over-schedule and play 30 power conference opponents, when playing 25 or 26 could lead to more wins and a better seed.)
That brings us back to the Hofstras, Jacksonville States and Radfords of the world.
They were opponents that were likely valued more by computer rankings than by the home teams’ fans who attended those Big Ten games last season.
To varying degrees, they were quality, but not world-beating, mid-majors and teams like them could become more frequent visitors to gyms across the Midwest and Eastern seaboard as power conference schools make phone calls about the decreasing number of non-conference games that are available to schedule at their own discretion because of more conference games and scheduling alliances.