Why Michigan State’s Suzy Merchant is right on the money: The post-Big Ten tourney ‘gap’ is nothing to be afraid of
ROSEMONT, Ill. — The more the hands start wringing, the more Suzy Merchant can’t stop smiling. Hoops schadenfreude.
“I’m just laughing because we’ve been complaining about the compressed schedules and not enough times for dates and the tournament being [later],” the Michigan State women’s basketball coach said during the Big Ten’s spring joint meetings in suburban Chicago this week. “So it’s kind of funny that it’s just so traumatizing for the men. I’m like, ‘Welcome to my world.’”
The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament is generally the last to close the books on Selection Sunday. The league’s championship game is the television lead-in to the CBS selection show, the party before the party, the final automatic ticket punched.
But this upcoming winter will be radically different, a taste of the mid-major life. To secure the availability of Madison Square Garden in New York City, the Big Ten agreed to move its showcase winter tourney up a week: Feb. 28 to March 4.
Selection Sunday is March 11. Which means a gap from the end of the league tourney to the start of the Big Dance that used to be a handful of days is now probably a week and a half, minimum, for contending schools.
“You literally go for a week and have no clue who you’re going to be playing,” Merchant said of the Big Ten women, who usually have a “gap” week between the end of the conference tourney and the selection show. “So as long as you have a good balance of rest, recovery and practice time, I think it’s a pretty beneficial thing.”
And there’s the rub.
Or rather, the rest.
Ease off the gas? Treat it like it’s the preseason again? Schedule a non-conference game early in the week, assuming an opponent is willing to shoehorn one in?
“How long a layoff is too long,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips mused, “where it really starts to have an adverse effect when you go into the postseason, whether it’s the NCAA or the NIT?”
A fair question, that.
Here’s the thing, though: Recent history sides with Merchant.
Since 2010, 39 NCAA tournament teams have been seeded an 11 or better, and entered the Big Dance with a gap of nine days or longer since playing their last game. Those teams went on to post a combined record of 58-39, for a winning percentage of .598.
Only 10 of them — 25.6 percent — failed to win at least one NCAA contest after such a long break. And a dozen of them — 30.8 percent — actually went on to win more than one game in the tourney, with seven of those schools (Butler in 2010; Butler in 2011; VCU in 2011; Wichita State in 2013; Gonzaga in 2015; Syracuse in 2016; and Gonzaga in 2017) winning at least three tilts in the Dance:
Gonzaga, the beast of the West Coast Conference, has experienced more than a week off before the NCAA tourney as standard practice. The Zags are 15-8 (.652) in Bracketville since 2010 and have won at least one contest every year so far this decade.
When in doubt, ask Mark Few.
Better yet, ask Merchant.
“I did [think about an extra game], but I worry about an injury and that hurting [the postseason],” the Spartans coach noted. “Like if you, Heaven forbid, lost the game — to be in that situation.
“[North Carolina coach] Sylvia [Hatchell] did that a handful of times, somebody that they were pretty sure they could beat, just to stay in rhythm. But I just get too nervous about an injury or something.”
Practice time. Rest. Recovery. Reflection.
As for what she’d recommend to Tom Izzo? Start there.
“He hasn’t said anything to me. I’m sure it will be [fine],” Merchant said.
“It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, but at the same time, the one thing we’re always complaining about during the season, as coaches, is that you don’t have enough time to work on yourself. So I would tell him that you get to work on yourself.”