Memory Lane: Making a basketball schedule

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: With John Groce wrapping up his first schedule at Illinois, a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges that come with arranging opponents for a big-time basketball program.

Headline: Scheduling conflict

Date: July 2, 2006

By BRETT DAWSON

The manilla folder on Jay Price's desk is fat. And he keeps feeding it.

There is organized chaos within — a careful system of underlines and circles made in ink and highlighter hues — but still, the thing looks as though at any moment it might overtake Price's already chaotic desk.

This is the scheduling folder.

And for much of the spring, it is Price's constant companion.

'The running joke among those of us who do scheduling is, 'If the head coach gives you scheduling as one of your responsibilities, he really wants to fire you,' ' said Price, an Illinois men's basketball assistant. 'I hope that's not the case.'

So far, Bruce Weber hasn't handed him a pink slip.

So far, Price has never failed in delivering a full slate of games.

But every year, he worries.

Every time the calendar churns on into June (and sometimes into July, and once into August), Price wonders if this will be the year.

'I don't like getting into August without a schedule,' he said. 'That gives me stomachaches.'

This summer, Price's bellyaches are kept to a minimum.

As you read this, he has completed Illinois' 2006-07 nonconference schedule, which awaits only the completion of the Big Ten slate before it's released to the public.

Reaching completion wasn't easy. It never is.

During a three-day stretch in June, Price made 58 phone calls to prospective opponents.

That was when he had one date left to fill.

He has long since lost count of his total number of phone calls, though Price guesses he's spoken to more than 150 schools since the season ended.

All of that to nail down 14 nonconference games.

There are so many concerns when it comes to big-time college basketball scheduling — dates, payouts, level of competition, television concerns — that it's a wonder the deed ever gets done.

'It seems simple,' Weber said. 'You want to have a good, balanced schedule that meets the needs of your team. Well, there's only one problem. Everybody else wants that, too.'

And so it's a tug-of-war between objectives and obstacles that leave coaches feeling as though they're being pulled every which way.

The objectives

1. Wins, and plenty of them

Unlike in football, where schedules often are completed three and four years in advance, basketball scheduling is done on a year-by-year basis.

In August, Price will begin to work toward completion of the 2007-08 schedule. But he does the bulk of his work between the Final Four and mid-June. And during that time, he's trying to figure out not only what kind of team Illinois will field in its upcoming season, but how good each prospective opponent might be.

'You look at a lot of things,' Price said. 'You look at the team and who you've got coming in. How is your team going to be? Will it be young? Will it be experienced? The year we went to the Final Four, we just scheduled. We knew we were going to be good.'

When there are more question marks, the schedule has to be tailored to the team in question. And to its high-profile opponents.

This year, for example, Illinois has tried to find a pressing team to play prior to its Braggin' Rights date with Missouri, which will employ first-year coach Mike Anderson's variation on Arkansas' '40 Minutes of Hell.'

But playing a team that presses — or runs a Princeton offense or plays a zone — sometimes takes a backseat to finding a team willing to come to Champaign and lose.

'When we're going to be good, you really want to get a variety of styles and conferences on the schedule,' Weber said. 'Now, this year we want wins. We want some confidence.'

That means you shouldn't expect a host of name schools when Illinois releases its nonconference schedule. Among the names you can expect to see: Belmont, Florida A&M, Idaho State and Georgia Southern.

Those will be sprinkled in among higher profile games against the likes of Arizona, Missouri and Xavier.

'You don't want to play four hard games in a row,' Price said. 'I mean, no game is an easy win, but you've got to look at your schedule and say, 'Right here, I might need a 250 RPI team where maybe I can play well and get a win.' You might be coming off two road games that you're 50/50 on.'

2. Home sweet home games

Illinois, like most major programs, needs home games not only to pad the win-loss record, but to sustain the school's athletic budget.

Basketball games mean ticket sales. That means money.

But getting home games isn't as easy as it sounds. And it doesn't help when your team is 93-4 at home over seven seasons, as the Illini are at the Assembly Hall.

'Our fans have made this place so incredibly well-known nationally for being a tough atmosphere, maybe the toughest atmosphere to play in the entire country,' Price said. 'So that makes our job tougher, but I'm glad. Even the smallest of the small schools hesitate to come in here and play us, because they've heard of the Orange Krush, they've heard about the atmosphere.'

Even if that weren't an issue there's a long list of factors that make home games tough to schedule.

First, everybody wants them.

'You'd be amazed at the number of calls we get this time of year from schools saying, 'I'll play anybody as long as it's at home,' ' said Burke Magnus, now the vice president and general manager of ESPNU, but formerly ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions for college basketball. 'Every school at every power conference in America is calling us to set up a home game.'

And that's not all that makes them hard to come by.

You can't set up a home game, for example, if your venue isn't available.

The Illinois men's program has to coordinate each date with the women's team and the Assembly Hall, which hosts concerts and shows during the winter months, and getting the Hall isn't always a given.

In addition, few teams want to play in front of a virtually guaranteed sellout against a team that has a reputation for always playing hard, Weber said.

'I like guys that will call and cuss me out and say, 'There's no way I'm coming to your place.' That's fine,' Weber said. 'At least they're being honest. What I don't like is that guys will lie to each other. If you don't want to play, you don't want to play. But don't tell us you don't have a date open when we call, and then we find out you went out and scheduled Minnesota on that date.'

Many assistant coaches do their best to line up home games while they're networking at the Final Four, Price said. Lately, he hasn't had much luck.

'I get told no at the Final Four more than the ticket brokers,' Price said. 'Coaches duck behind columns because they see me coming.'

3. RPI, not R.I.P.

So a team wants wins and home games.

Sounds simple, right?

Hardly.

There's also the matter of looking ahead to the NCAA tournament. And just winning a slew of nonconference games isn't good enough for Illinois.

The Illini also need to think about their postseason seeding. The best way to solidify it is to play teams that will finish the season ranked in the top 150 of the Ratings Percentage Index, a formula the NCAA uses to help select and seed the field of 65.

Remember that full-to-bursting folder on Price's desk?

Among other things, it contains last year's RPI, and the final standings from each NCAA Division I conference.

Price uses those figures as a jumping-off point as he tries to find balance in the schedule. He breaks down what each team has returning, and what its recruiting class looks like.

Sometimes, he even calls other schools in a prospective opponent's conference — not for a detailed scouting report, but for a gut feeling about a team.

'If they look like they're going to be top four or five in their conference, great,' Price said. 'Then we're probably going to give them a call.'

Even armed with all that knowledge, though, it's an inexact science.

Illinois couldn't have dreamed two years ago, when it secured a two-game contract with Oregon, that it would blow out the Ducks twice. And before Weber's arrival, a four-year deal between Illinois and Arkansas seemed like a great idea — until the once-proud Razorbacks sunk into mediocrity.

'Remember, when we use the RPI, it's the one from the year before,' Price said. 'Who's to say a school that's at 170 isn't going to be at 140 the next year? And who's to say that a team that was 170 isn't going to be 240 the next year? Everybody says you want to play teams that are going to be 150 and above, but I don't have a crystal ball to tell me which teams are going to be 150 and above.'

Assuming, though, that Price and Weber are comfortable with a prospective opponent and are confident they can secure a home game, Price begins the process of trying to nail down a game.

That's where the obstacles come into play.

The obstacles

1. Money, money, money, money

In today's collegiate climate, money matters.

When Illinois plays a school like Memphis at home, it doesn't cost the Illini anything. The Illni return the game the following season, and the two schools call it even.

But few schools are operating in the black, and for programs outside the power conferences, going on the road for so-called 'guarantee games' (in which they're guaranteed a certain amount of money from the home team) is an essential cash cow.

That means BCS conference schools like Illinois have to pay to get mid and lowmajor teams to visit.

And sometimes, the little guy is all too happy to take advantage of Big Money U.

'The money has escalated,' Weber said. 'It used to be that if you gave a team $30,000 they were happy. Now, teams say, 'Give me $50,000 and a bus and meals.' '

Sometimes, even $50,000 won't cut it.

A school Price declined to name was scrambling this spring, he said, because it had secured an opponent for $55,000, only to lose that opponent to a team that offered $75,000 and the cost of hotel rooms for the same date.

Some schools don't even try to line up their schedule until late spring or early summer, Price said, because they can hold out for better payoffs.

'That happens,' he said. 'You'll call somebody in April and they'll say, 'We're not even talking until June.' '

At Illinois, most teams receive somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000, though the amount can vary depending on any number of factors, including the cost of travel to Champaign (a plane, obviously, costs more than a bus).

Sometimes, schools get creative in making requests far beyond a check.

When Weber coached at Southern Illinois, he'd take less guaranteed money from a host school that was willing to pay for travel expenses, because that was money he didn't have to spend out of his tight operating budget.

'Some schools ask for anything that helps them with their budget,' Weber said. 'One year at Purdue, we paid for somebody's shoes. That was their request. We bought their allotment of Nike shoes for the season.'

2. Save the date

Once a team has agreed to visit and has settled on a price, there's the matter of setting a date for the game.

As with everything in scheduling, that's harder than it seems.

First, there's the aforementioned need to find an open date at an arena.

'You'd be surprised how big an issue that is,' said ESPNU's Magnus. 'In the Big East, you have some schools who have to worry about conflicts with NBA or NHL teams in their arenas, and those schools can't even start to look at games until July when those pro schedules come out.'

Then, there's the matter of fitting the game into the overall scheme of the schedule.

'I think dates are probably the hardest part,' Weber said. 'Just look at us in December. We've got the United Center game, we've got the Missouri game. We can't play during finals week. You've got to take some time off for Christmas. So you're working with a limited number of days, and then you're trying to work your schedule so that you aren't coming off Missouri and playing another brutal game.'

In fact, it's sometimes so hard to narrow down a date that potential games will fall through because of it.

Case in point: In 2004-05, Illinois wanted desperately to play a game in Dallas to provide a homecoming for Deron Williams, Jack Ingram and Warren Carter.

Price talked to Texas about a Dallas/ Chicago series and to SMU about a home-and-home.

So desperate were the Illini to play in Texas that they were willing to shuffle their schedule to play Oregon (in Chicago) and Oakland (in Champaign) on back-to-back days.

'We were willing to go on the road the first year (of a home-and-home series), and we still couldn't work out the game,' Price said. 'And that was mostly because we just couldn't find a way to make the dates work.'

Some schools even use the dating game to try and weasel out of return games in home-and-home series.

'Some guys will try that, unfortunately,' Weber said. 'People tell you, 'Oh, I just can't make the dates work out this year.' That's why you build in huge buyout clauses, like $300,000 or $400,000 into those contracts. If they can't work out the dates, they have to pay.'

The date chase also involves television, which can send a schedule-maker scrambling with even a subtle shift. This season, Illinois moved games against Xavier (from a Saturday to a Friday) and Missouri (from a Wednesday to a Tuesday) to accommodate ESPN.

'We might say, 'Hey, could you pick it up and move it?' ' Magnus said. 'And we're typically talking about a day on either side of the date they're looking at. We're not going to move the thing three weeks. Still, it's a giant puzzle, as you might imagine.'

3. The games within the games

And what would games be without a little gamesmanship?

Coaches are, by nature, competitive people. So it should come as no surprise that sometimes, prospective games collapse during coaches' standoffs.

For example, 'When you try to schedule a home-and-home series, it's always, 'Well, you come here first,' 'No, you come here first,' ' Weber said. 'Nobody wants to give in.'

Often, there's no compromise.

'Games just end because you can't decide,' Price said.

Another hot-button topic: Referees.

Illinois' signed contracts for home games against Belmont, Idaho State and Georgia Southern stipulate that the UI will pay for the game officials, and that they will be assigned by the Big Ten.

But in nonconference games against teams from power conferences, that can become a sticking point.

'It's a huge issue,' Weber said. 'There's all this debate. Should you have guys from your conference working your home games, or is it better to have officials from their conference working when you're at home and your guys working when you go on the road?'

That debate has never been a deal-breaker for an Illinois game since Weber and his staff arrived, Price said, but it has always been an issue.

'I think as much as anything with coaches, it's a little gamesmanship,' Price said. 'We go back and forth over officials, but I'm not sure how much it matters, because all officials are fair and most of them are pretty good.'

There are other reasons, too, that a coach might back away from a potential game.

Most major programs with a national recruiting reach like to schedule in regions they like to recruit. That was part of the appeal, for example, of Illinois' appearance at the Wooden Tradition two years ago in Indianapolis.

But coaches tend to be territorial about recruiting. And some would prefer to put up a 'Do Not Enter' sign around their respective regions.

That might be one reason, Price said, why Illinois — which has recruited Texas in the past — was shut out of a game in Dallas two years ago.

'We'll have a team call us and say, 'Hey, we'd like to play you in Chicago,' but then we look at it and say, 'Wait a minute, you're recruiting three of the same kids from Chicago that we are,' ' Price said. 'Why would we want to schedule that game?'

Two years ago, Price put away that big, fat folder in August and took his family on vacation.

No sooner had he arrived at his destination than Weber was ringing his cell phone.

'Guess what?' the head coach said. 'The last game fell through.'

So Price was back to work.

This summer, he seems safe from that fate. Illinois received its final signed contract last Monday. Its schedule seems secure.

But already, Price is looking toward 2007-08.

Illinois has a trip to Maui locked up for that season, not to mention a probable road game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a matchup against Arizona at the United Center — a return game for this season's trip to play the Wildcats in Phoenix.

So Price will be trying again next spring to secure a slew of home games.

It probably won't get any easier.

'Everybody would love to have Louisville come to their place, Duke come to their place every night, but it's just not going to happen,' Price said. 'I wish I could just pick up the phone and say, 'You want to play?' and they would say, 'Sure! I want to come to Champaign right now!' But it's not that easy. It's hours and hours and hours of work.'

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Liner wrote on June 18, 2012 at 12:06 pm

   Six years ago we were a top 10-15 program; Hope Coach Groce can get us back to that point. It should be easier now to find teams willing to play us and hopefully the recruits can remember back to when we were a top team. The fans are there Coach just rekindle the flame.