Explaining the (many) quirks in Iowa's Big Ten hoops schedule
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Did Iowa get hosed on its men’s basketball schedule? Some would say yes.
No Saturday home dates out of a possible nine in Big Ten Conference play? How is that allowed to happen, especially when Michigan and Nebraska get as many as five each?
Mark Rudner, the Big Ten’s senior associate commissioner for television (and scheduling guru), is here to answer your questions. But hold your complaints until reaching the bottom of this article.
“I’ve seen it all and heard it all,” says Rudner, who has been doing this long enough to remember the days of Big Ten “travel partners” and a steady slate of Thursday-Saturday games. “I’m happy to talk about it as a means of trying to help folks try to understand how complex a process it is.”
Saturday home basketball games are the mother lode. They’re great for attracting the best butt-in-seat turnouts because they’re more convenient for families and of out-of-towners. They are perfect centerpieces for recruits on their official visits. There’s also the nostalgic comfort of soaking in Saturday afternoon hoops.
But Iowa now hits a stretch of games on five consecutive Sundays, including four at home, starting this weekend at 3:30 p.m. against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Although Iowa is expected to have sellouts this Sunday and next (vs. Purdue) and there isn't a huge revenue gulf created by the schedule, Saturdays bring the best atmospheres.
Of Iowa's 18 home games last season, five were sellouts of 15,400 — four Big Ten Saturday afternoon home games and a Friday night against rival Iowa State.
“We’d prefer to play as many Saturday home games as possible,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta says. “It’s better for our fans and for our program. The Big Ten knows our preference. But they also have to solve a ‘Rubik’s cube’ formula every year.”
How complicated is the puzzle?
The Big Ten once assembled the schedule by hand. Now, it takes three just weeks to write the scheduling program and another three weeks for the computer to process every machination until there’s a “hit.” The entire process, from assigning matchups to TV and tipoff times, runs from February to September.
“The algorithm is so large because you’re dealing with so many different variables,” Rudner says. “I always tell the (computer) guy, 'Here’s what we’ve got to do. The first time you get a hit, let me know.' That’s the schedule we want to use, unless there’s something unintended we didn’t foresee in the program.”
Conference expansion and TV are the biggest factors in the scheduling evolution.
And then there’s the finicky and routine-driven coaches, on the men’s and women’s side, at 14 institutions. To try to accommodate each team’s preferences, Rudner and the Big Ten office in May surveyed every coach to formulate “15 scheduling principles” that are being used to establish the schedule for at least the next few years.
The principles are ranked 1 through 15, with the top five being considered borderline sacred. But jamming 252 conference games in 70 days for 28 men’s and women’s teams leaves imperfections.
“To have 100 percent compliance with the 15 principles for all 28 teams,” Rudner says, “I think everybody feels is unreasonable. So you do the best you can and keep as many of the top principles as you can.”
To better understand the principles and why Iowa just had a nine-day span between games — its longest in Big Ten play since 1993 — we present how the men’s coaches rank the 15 (the women have the same top five, with minor fluctuations after that).
And then we’ll close with a big-picture summary and look at the future. Ready? Set? Here we go.
The 15 scheduling principles
1. A team should have a minimum of two days' preparation for the next game.
Game prep is king to the Big Ten’s coaches. Long ago, former Iowa coach Tom Davis was among those who successfully argued for changing the Thursday-Saturday schedule to Wednesday-Saturday, because it allowed two off days between every conference game. This single principle is the biggest force in creating scheduling oddities.
Suppose Iowa has a Wednesday game. So then it could play Saturday, right? Not if its next opponent plays on a Thursday. So, the game gets pushed to Sunday. And the cycle restarts, meaning the earliest Iowa could play again would be Wednesday.
There’s only one instance on the men’s side to possibly give a team one day of prep. Maryland is scheduled to face Illinois on March 3, and for now, its finale is either March 5 or 6 at Indiana, depending on whether CBS takes that as its Sunday TV game.
“You do everything you can to make sure there are two days to prepare,” Rudner says. “If somebody has to play three road games (in a row) in order to get that two days of prep, you do it. Because that’s the most important principle.”
2. A team should not play more than two consecutive road games.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. There are no men’s instances in which a team plays three straight away from home.
3. There should be a balance of home and road games for each team in the first and second halves of the season.
Essentially, coaches want to avoid having six or more home or away games in the first or last nine. And the Big Ten accommodated this. Every men’s team has either a 5/4 or 4/5 split.
4. There should be a balance of home and road games on weekdays and weekends.
The thinking here is that eight mid-week road games is bad for academics. The Big Ten computer did a good job here; Northwestern and Wisconsin each drew the men’s high of six weeknight road games.
5. No five-game clusters.
Coaches don’t want four straight two-day preparations, such as a series of games on Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday and Tuesday. That’s five games in 13 days, and it only happens once on the men’s side. Purdue was dealt a five-game cluster from Jan. 18-30.
Iowa women's coach Lisa Bluder expressed disbelief over her team getting a five-game cluster that was scheduled to wrap up Saturday at Michigan State.
"Unbelievable," she said after a loss to Maryland, Iowa's third game in seven days. "We never can give our players a day off, mentally or physically."
6. A team should not open the season with two consecutive road games.
As mentioned, the top five principles are on their own level. Now, we’re getting into areas that you'll see more exceptions to the rule. Three men’s teams got back-to-back road games to open Big Ten play — Indiana went 2-0, Michigan State 1-1 and Penn State 0-2.
7. No four-game clusters.
This one’s tough to avoid, and really, a Thursday-Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday series historically hasn't been daunting — four games in 10 days, considering that’s how it was every week in the 1980s when almost all TV was local or regional. The Iowa men don’t have any of these. Michigan State started a four-game cluster Thursday with its 76-59 loss to the Hawkeyes.
8. A team’s two bye dates should be split, with one in the first half of the season, the other in the second half.
Makes sense, and this is one of the easier principles to accommodate without wrecking others.
But the bye issue combined with TV created Iowa's nine-day layoff. After being assigned a Tuesday night game vs. Nebraska, Iowa's first-half bye came on the second Big Ten weekend and was followed by an ESPN-selected Thursday game at Michigan State.
9. A school’s men’s and women’s team should not play at home on the same day.
This one is easy to accommodate.
10. A team should not open the season with two consecutive home games.
Two men’s teams opened back-to-back at home. Nebraska went 0-2, and Ohio State went 2-0. Interestingly, both teams were then assigned (or punished with?) four road dates in the next five.
11. A team should not play more than two consecutive home games.
There are no men’s instances of this scenario.
12. There should be a minimum of 14 days between “mirror” games.
This is a reasonably hot topic among coaches, so it’s a little surprising that this rated outside the top 10.
“I don’t think any coach likes to play teams close together,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says.
But Izzo and others have learned to complain less about playing the same opponent twice in a short span. The Spartans played Iowa for the second time on Thursday after the opening game Dec. 29. And they’ll be involved in one of four men’s matchups that are inside that 14-day window: playing Ohio State on Feb. 23, then again on March 5/6.
Rutgers has two such occurrences, facing Illinois on Feb. 3 and 16, and then Minnesota on Feb. 23 and March 5.
13. Every team plays on the first and last playing date(s) of the season.
Although each team gets two byes, those don’t occur during the opening mid-week games in late December or the finishing weekend in March. It's pretty easy to write into a program and accomplish. Coaches don't want one or two teams to have more rest than another entering the Big Ten Tournament.
14. If a team opens the season on the road, it closes the season at home. Or vice versa.
This priority was met with 12 men’s teams — only Rutgers (starting at home, ending at home) and Minnesota (road/road) got dealt this fate.
15. If a team opens the season on the road, it opens the next season at home. Or vice versa.
Last year, Iowa opened at Ohio State. This year, it started at home vs. Michigan State. So, look for the Hawkeyes to start Big Ten play on the road in late December 2016.
Barta: Quirks will 'even out'
The long process of figuring a schedule is more than waiting on a computer. Television entities get involved, sometime after the Final Four. The Big Ten meets with its TV partners — CBS, ESPN and, of course, its own network. Because they pay tens of millions of dollars in basketball rights fees annually, TV executives naturally get to make their voice heard on selecting preferred matchups.
Eventually, tip times are determined as well, and the final schedule is typically revealed in September.
Iowa is the only Big Ten men’s team guaranteed to get the home Saturday shutout. Ohio State might be in the same boat, if TV decides the Hawkeyes-Buckeyes Feb. 27/28 game will flex into CBS’ Sunday afternoon slot.
Six teams have at least four coveted Saturday home games.
“I don’t like having zero Saturdays, nor would we have chosen a nine-day layoff,” Barta says. “But I’m confident these unique scheduling quirks (will) even out over time.”
Barta understands, too, a guaranteed Saturday home game isn’t among the 15 principles.
“If the coaches came back and said we need more Saturday games, even if it means having one day to prepare, then we would do that,” Rudner says. “But that’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying we need two days to prepare, and we get it.”
Another oddity in the Hawkeyes’ slate is that the four single-plays at home are all border teams: Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Iowa is racking up frequent-flyer miles with trips to every opponent in football’s Big Ten East Division, plus Purdue and Illinois.
The Big Ten’s response to any complaint is the same to all 14 universities.
“The schedule is the schedule,” Rudner says. “That’s why we gave them the opportunity to provide input on scheduling principles. I’ve had coaches in the past (say), 'You need to share the schedule before you put it out there.' I said, if that’s that case, my guess is you’ll never have a schedule.”
WHO: No. 16 Iowa (13-3, 4-0 Big Ten) vs. Michigan (13-4, 3-1)
WHERE: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
TIME/TV: 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network (Announcers: Jeff Levering, Jon Crispin)
RADIO: WHO-AM (1040) in Des Moines, KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and the Hawkeye network; Sirius (Ch. 93), XM (Ch. 195).
NOTES: A sellout is expected. Fans are encouraged to wear white for this "Whiteout" game. ... Iowa has won 11 straight home games, including eight this season. The Hawkeyes are averaging 85.9 points a game at home. ... Iowa is the first team since Duke and Kentucky in 1965 to beat the same top-five nationally ranked opponent by double digits twice in one year. The Hawkeyes beat Michigan State 83-70 on Jan. 29, and 76-59 on Thursday. ... The status of Michigan star Caris LeVert (lower left leg injury) remains uncertain. LeVert has missed three straight games, including Michigan's upset of No. 3 Maryland on Tuesday.