Even in shortened season, nonconference games should come first

Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 07/04/20


With continued questions surrounding the 2020-21 college basketball schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Iona head coach Rick Pitino offered a potential solution this past week.

“Suggestion to the NCAA, push the start of the season back to January and only play league games,” Pitino shared on Twitter. “Buy some more time for a vaccine and to get things under control. Although I can’t wait to be back on the sidelines, the health of my players and staff is what’s really important.”

Pitino’s argument is sound and comes from both a cautious and optimistic place.

Assuming college basketball is safe to return at any point over the next six months, there are other scheduling solutions that could make more logistic sense, though.

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The first box to check is reducing travel as much as possible. One would guess that going with a conference-only schedule would minimize travel substantially, but that isn’t the case for several leagues.

Let’s take the WAC, for example. The league’s nine teams reside in the following states: California, Illinois, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington and Texas. The American, meanwhile, features universities as far west as Houston and as northeast as Temple. The Big Ten has Nebraska and Iowa as well as Penn State and Maryland.

Another reason why a conference-only schedule is flawed is because there would be no route to assess relative conference strength. We can assume the Big East is better than the Big South, sure, but without nonconference games and every league finishing with a .500 winning percentage, how would we know if going 12-8 in one league is better than going 12-8 in another league?

With these factors in mind, a revised schedule would have to feature minimized travel as well as nonconference competition.

Here’s a possible solution: Allow coaches to schedule teams of their choice out of their given region.

The United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) uses nine districts for end-of-season awards which could be applied for scheduling purposes. Each of the nine districts and their states are listed below:

The NCAA could allow coaching staffs to negotiate and assemble schedules with other programs that reside in the same region. So instead of Fran McCaffery and the Iowa Hawkeyes having to make the 773-mile trek to Penn State or the 902-mile trip to Maryland, they could play at Northern Iowa (89 miles), Missouri (224 miles) or Iowa State (136 miles), among others.

Is the system perfect? Of course not. There are no perfect options amid a pandemic, though. If college basketball is safe to return, a shortened schedule featuring regionally based opponents could be a formidable solution.


Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.