IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nothing related to scheduling Big Ten men’s basketball games is easy, but the upcoming 2017-18 slate features extraordinary changes and challenges well beyond a typical season.
Finding the perfect schedule among more than a billion combinations is one of Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner’s primary charges each summer. This year, however, many of the league’s scheduling principles were stretched or set aside, and for good reason:
- With the Big Ten Tournament moving to Madison Square Garden in New York, the 2017-18 conference campaign ends one week earlier than normal.
- Northwestern’s arena renovation will force the Wildcats to play 40 minutes away with a reduced pool of available dates.
- Minneapolis hosts the Super Bowl, which removes nearly a week of Minnesota home games.
- A new television contract with FOX has led to Big Ten games airing on Monday and Friday nights.
- Finally, each team will play two games in early December.
“The season ends a week earlier, which means the schedule is a bit more compressed and some of the coaches’ scheduling principles which heretofore have been routinely met on a year-to-year basis, particularly the principle of having two days to prepare for each game, those have been challenged in a way that really for our coaches and fans is going to be a lot different,” said Rudner, who is in charge of scheduling and television administration.
Here’s a look at many of those changes and how the Big Ten arrived at them in compiling the 2017-18 men’s basketball schedule:
Big Ten schedule shrinks by a week
The Big Ten’s expansion in 2014 that brought on Maryland and Rutgers provided an opening to stage events on the East Coast. Some have been stand-alone events, others hockey-basketball doubleheaders in New York. The biggest prize of all was shifting the men’s basketball tournament to Madison Square Garden.
There was one issue, however. The Big East had already secured MSG for its tournament. If the Big Ten wanted to play at the iconic venue, it needed to do so one week earlier. That backed up the regular-season schedule by one full week.
“Which we thought was good for our Eastern strategy,” Rudner said. “We don’t visit to the East anymore, we live there.
“We polled our coaches at the time and they all felt it was worth the challenges in the schedule to have the opportunity to move our tournament to Madison Square Garden. So we did that that.”
Coupled with an earlier Final Four, the regular-season schedule ends Feb. 25, more than a week earlier than usual. Last season, for instance, Big Ten regular-season play ended March 5. That meant either jamming in 18 games into a tighter window this season or finding a new opportunity.
Big Ten basketball in early December?
An idea emerged from a 2016 meeting between league officials and basketball coaches and was adopted this year. Every team will play two games the first weekend in December — one home, one away — wrapped around the Big Ten football championship. Teams will play either Friday-Sunday or Saturday-Monday. Michigan State, which has a later Big Ten-ACC Challenge game, was the exception, with a Sunday-Tuesday schedule.
With a compressed league schedule, a scheduling principle of allowing two days of preparation was disregarded. In this case, there were no advantages for any of the teams.
“[The coaches] actually came up with the idea that why don’t we all play two games in early December — one at home, one on the road — and everybody will be affected similarly by the single-day prep,” Rudner said. “That way, we can give our kids more time off around the holidays and we can play our first conference game on campus with our students in attendance.
“The coaches were all unanimous in recommending that. The athletic directors thought it was a great idea. We did too. That was the genesis. It frees up the holiday period for coaches to give their students off. It allows their first conference home game to be played when the students are still on campus and not between the holidays, and it lessens a little bit — there’s still compression in the schedule — but it’s not like they’re playing 10 straight weeks, two games a week. That would have been hard.”
League officials then pushed back the start of the remaining 16 games to Jan. 2, which is about a week later than many previous Big Ten openers.
As for opening Big Ten basketball on a weekend when interest in college football reaches its zenith, there was no concern from coaches or administrators.
“I think we looked at it as an opportunity to really brand the conference in a way that we hadn’t been able to do so before,” Rudner said. “I mean, if you look at the games that are typically scheduled on that Saturday, the first Saturday in December, they’re not very impressive games. We thought it was a great opportunity to have conference games surrounding our football championship and really do something special with it.”
Friday night Big Ten basketball on FOX?
The Big Ten’s newest rights agreement allows FOX, BTN’s priority owner, to grab a chunk of football and basketball scheduling. FOX, FS1 and FS2 will air a minimum of 39 games and a maximum of 47 in both conference and nonconference action.
The league’s previous arrangements with CBS, ESPN and BTN remain unchanged. CBS still will air games on Sunday afternoons, ESPN broadcasts games on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and BTN will stage its Wednesday doubleheader. FOX, FS1 and FS2 will broadcast games on Mondays and Fridays.
“Only the NFL has more media rights agreements than the Big Ten does,” Rudner said. “The good news is with FOX came a lot more exposure. We’ll be playing every day of the week: Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday. From Tuesday, January 2, through Sunday, February 25, those 55 days, we will have Big Ten basketball played on 51 of those days.
“Nationally televised games. Because of this media rights agreement, no conference has as much if not more national exposure than Big Ten basketball has this year.”
Of the four dates without Big Ten basketball, one is because of the College Football Playoff. Two are on Fridays and one is on Monday.
With the addition of Monday and Friday night basketball, the league had to relax its principle of splitting home weeknight and weekend games.
“There are schools that have sort of an imbalance or weekday and weekend home games because a lot of it is related to the fact of how do you count a Monday or a Friday game?” Rudner said. “Is that a weekday or a weekend game? Everybody has been affected in some way, but not everybody has been affected in the same way. But everybody’s going to look at their schedule and they’re going to see something in there that looks a little different.”
Adding the FOX family of networks should allow for more televised nonconference games, but the league remains committed to its digital products. Friday night basketball shouldn’t derail BTN’s emphasis on live Big Ten hockey or wrestling coverage, Rudner said.
“We don’t think that Olympic sports or hockey scheduling is going to be impacted,” Rudner said. “If at all, it will be negligible. We’re becoming a lot more sophisticated with our scheduling processes in terms of how we schedule, how we schedule for TV, how we schedule around TV. I just don’t think there’s going to be that significant of an impact on either hockey or, in terms of Iowa, wrestling.”
Big Ten location challenges
Universities send special requests to Rudner every year to free up their arenas. That could include concerts, high school state tournaments or on-campus events. This season, however, issues with Northwestern and Minnesota caused more scheduling challenges than usual.
A reconstruction of Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena will force the Wildcats to play this season at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., the former home of DePaul basketball. Only about one-third of the arena dates were available for Northwestern, which stressed the league’s scheduling process.
With Minneapolis hosting Super Bowl LII in Feburary and hotel space at a premium, there was a six-day moratorium on games at Minnesota’s Williams Arena. In normal years, it would be an inconvenience. This year, it was a disruption.
“We were able to deal with it,” Rudner said. “We were able to create a schedule that met our media rights obligations and also met the facility obligations that our institutions have. It’s just that the coaches have these 15 recommended scheduling principles for each institution that were just not able to be met.”
The two-day preparation was the most important scheduling principle for Big Ten coaches, but that was stretched. Rudner counted 34 cases where teams will play with one day of preparation.
“If you look at it holistically, if you look at it compared to peer conferences, it really isn’t all that different,” Rudner said. “We know last year the Pac-12 had 52. We know the ACC had 31, we know the Big 12 had 22 and the Big East had 14.
“We’re pretty confident that the 2019 schedule, and when Northwestern and Minnesota’s facilities come back online for the duration of the schedule, we think it will start to look a lot like it did in the past.”
Also, a few teams will have three consecutive road games, which is a break from tradition.
Big Ten scheduling future
The league’s media contracts with CBS, ESPN and FOX run through the 2023-24 men’s basketball season, so Friday night basketball is here to stay. But what about other possibilities?
Big Ten officials and basketball coaches will discuss the league’s scheduling future after the 2017-18 season. That includes topics ranging from a 20-game schedule to establishing permanent rivalry opponents. They could vote to keep the December weekend hoops gala or shelve it. The league could even move schedules into November.
If the league enters November, perhaps officials might look at staging weekend football-basketball doubleheaders. Maybe an Ohio State-Michigan or Northwestern-Illinois basketball game the Friday before their annual rivalry football matchup. Perhaps the league examines same-day football-basketball doubleheaders. It’s possible Indiana-Purdue could play twice annually but no other team does. Or in a 20-game schedule, each team could designate multiple rivalries to play twice each season.
Alterations to the 2017-18 slate opened up many of those possibilities. Depending on how this year shakes out, this season could bring the first of several changes to men’s basketball scheduling.
“I think everything is open for discussion,” Rudner said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what comes out of the summit with our coaches.”