Tate: For fans' sake, home hoops schedule needs more substance
Matt Painter violated the basketball coach’s handbook. He faces shunning by his colleagues, maybe public stoning.
You see, the Purdue coach scheduled a game at the Ypsilanti home of a midmajor, Eastern Michigan. Worse yet, the Boilermakers lost 47-44 in front of 1,790 onlookers Dec. 8.
OK, Painter wasn’t alone. Ever-daring Tom Izzo took his Michigan State Spartans to Bowling Green, and unbeaten Michigan traveled to Peoria to face Bradley. Falling into this category is Illinois’ payback trip to Gonzaga although, realistically speaking, the Bulldogs shouldn’t be treated as a midmajor any longer.
But the unwritten rule remains. Big Ten teams pay midmajors to serve as visiting sacrificial lambs. The conference’s six ranked teams have gone 50-0 against midmajors this season. And while some of these games have thrilling finishes, devoted fans grumble as they are obliged to purchase these affairs as part of their season ticket package.
Understand, by major college standards, the Illini have not played a weak schedule. Their road experiences have been challenging. The wins against Gonzaga and Butler were whoppers, and the Illini rank No. 9 in strength of schedule ... even though seven victims don’t fall within the Top 150.
But you can throw me in with UI fans who cry out for more good home games in November and December.
If Illinois hadn’t received a home game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (Georgia Tech), all the pre-January home games would have been against midmajors.
Coach John Groce recognizes the problem. Earlier, in discussing the excitement leading into the Missouri game, he made it clear that every outing can’t be that stressful.
“You know what I’m going to say. Scheduling is really important. We have to balance all that,” he said.
“You look at teams and most of them, maybe not all, have some balance in what they do. They’re not playing 15 Missouri games and 18 BCS power (conference) games. They’re not. We have to balance that.
“Each year is different, too. How young are you? What type of experience do you have? Those things play into our schedule. I like our schedule.”
Tune up while fans tune out
As mentioned, all Big Ten teams have similarities in their scheduling. Indiana got ACC rival North Carolina at home with nine midmajors plus Butler, which no longer falls in that category after joining Xavier and Temple in the 16-team Atlantic 10.
Minnesota played eight midmajors at home. Ohio State plays its eighth Saturday against Chicago State (why; to recover from Kansas?). Iowa hosted Iowa State and nine midmajors, falling to strong Missouri Valley contender Wichita State.
All these Big Ten teams have respectable road tuneups but left their fans wanting at home.
The fault lies with athletic directors who have allowed their basketball coaches, from coast to coast, virtually full power in scheduling their own games. Who can blame coaches for lining up as many victories as possible? It’s human nature. No coach facing a grueling big-conference lineup wants to be the only one scheduling all-tough warmups in December.
Up to the test
Groce expresses understanding for the fans’ dilemma and, in trying to upgrade the home slate, finds himself more limited than most.
Hanging over his head is the possibility, soon to be considered, of the Big Ten going to a 20-game conference schedule when Rutgers and Maryland arrive. That would take 20 of the 28 permitted dates, not counting an exempt tournament, and Groce would be locked into 24 of the 28 slots with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, games in St. Louis and Chicago, and the latter requiring a payback (at UNLV next season).
Furthermore, in trying to alternate a home-and-road deal with a major foe, Groce is troubled by the fact he doesn’t know which years the Illini will have home games in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Preparing for Saturday’s date against Auburn in Chicago, Groce said:
“I hope we’re battle tested. We’ve played two road games in tough environments (Gonzaga and Missouri) with really good crowds. We have had the Maui tournament against good competition, and we played Georgia Tech at home.
“We’ve had to prepare for more different styles, maybe more so than with any team I’ve faced as an assistant or head coach. We’ve seen just about everything ... zones, zone presses, fullcourt man, running and jumping, trapping, man, switching. We’ve seen all kinds of stuff.”
He is right. This Illinois team has been tested. But all Illini fans can’t travel. And after a 10-year stretch in which 66 of 69 scheduled home games came against midmajors (discounting five Big Ten/ACC Challenges arranged by the conferences), you can’t blame fans for wanting more. It would be a short trip for Butler or Kentucky or Louisville or Cincinnati or Marquette or Notre Dame or, if it isn’t too distant, Kansas in a home-road exchange.
Not all at once, but just one of them occasionally HERE would be nice.
Imagine the buzz, the excitement. Just one ... occasionally. Here.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.