College Basketball Needs More Non-Conference Games, But It's Going the Opposite Direction

College Basketball Needs More Non-Conference Games, But It's Going the Opposite Direction


College Basketball Needs More Non-Conference Games, But It's Going the Opposite Direction

It’s June, but John Calipari is worked up.

This time it’s about the present trend toward longer conference seasons in college basketball, which is justified since the conference season is the least exciting part of the college basketball year to everybody but Bill Self.

Despite this, the ACC is expanding to a 20-game conference season (from 18) in 2019, and the Big Ten commissioner has said his league is considering the same.

This all came up on the SEC media conference call on Tuesday, wherein the Kentucky coach blamed the TV networks for this unhappy trend.

“They need more inventory for their own network so you just play more league games and then you have more inventory for your network to put on,” Calipari said via teleconference Tuesday. “Hopefully in our case in this league (the Southeastern Conference) we stay where we are and if we don’t, we’ll make it work.”

Calipari is right about this, obviously, and he went further to make the obvious point that two extra conference games will come at the expense of non-conference games, and not necessarily the bad ones.

“What you do is, you take away some of those kind of games that have been good to us,” Calipari said. “North Carolina, for example: If they go to 20 games we won’t have any more series with North Carolina, so I’m not for it.”

The growing conference season makes sense in the short term. The television contracts in question are negotiated with individual leagues, so that’s the level at which their influence is felt. The ACC has decided to do it, the SEC might not, and somewhere a Federalist has gotten his wings. But consider college basketball corporately for a second: A game which already bears many of the familiar markings of a niche sport would seem to be making a risky long-term move for some extra money in the short-term.

This is because there are only so many marquee games available in a hypothetical schedule, and this move will necessarily eliminate some of them. To its credit, Kentucky has been involved in a good number of those affairs; this decade it has faced both North Carolina and Kansas five times in the regular season, UCLA four times, Duke twice. But other major programs also schedule aggressively, partly because that behavior is rewarded by the calculus used on Selection Sunday. Expanding the conference season will in all likelihood reduce the number of matchups like these.

Many of these games come in the context of a special event, like an “invitational tournament” of some kind or a made-for-TV extravaganza like the popular Big 12/SEC Challenge. Gimmickery like this is a tried-and-true technique in basketball marketing (if you played high school ball you almost certainly played in something called the “Thanksgiving Classic” at some point), and college basketball should not fear embracing it.

So in that spirit, the best thing for college basketball would be to keep the conference season the same length, but move start of conference play up a couple, three weeks — to middle or late December — in order to make room for two weeks of high-profile inter-conference TILTS that begin the day after the last college football game. Perhaps there could even be an event pitting the top, say, eight teams against each other in a one-week tournament. I don’t know. The specifics can be worked out later, but the point is there is a low spot in the sports calendar between Nick Saban and “pitchers and catchers report” and college basketball is in a unique position to fill it with the Next Best Thing to the NCAA Tournament.

As it is, college basketball fills that space with the beginning of conference play. I like college basketball, so I’d be watching these games whenever they were played. But we all have a priority list as sports fans, and if college hoops is further down your list, you may not be so interested in finding out that Michigan got itself into a hole early or whether or not Arizona is going to take care of Oregon State on the road.

But, ah, let’s say that’s not what you got.

Instead, let’s say this is the week when you remember, hypothetically speaking, Kevin Durant (Texas) and Russell Westbrook (UCLA) facing off at Madison Square Garden in 2007. Or the next year, maybe you’re introduced to Steph Curry because you’re flipping channels and you see this little Davidson dude has 25 in the first half against North Carolina, and Roy’s already got the daggum jacket off. Hypothetically speaking. But you get the idea. This sort of thing happens in November and December, but that’s right in the middle of the stretch run in college and pro football. It doesn’t have a chance to pop.

Tweaking the schedule in this way, you’d run into the problem of putting conference games right in the middle of finals and the end of the semester. This is a concern that should be addressed, because as arbitrary as we may consider the NCAA’s rulebook to be, for every player who looks at college basketball like a stop on a basketball journey and nothing more, there are 10 who are really trying to earn their degrees. But if I know anything about college athletics, I know they’d find a way to work that all out if there was somebody offering a TV contract to do it.

I can’t imagine there are many college basketball fans, hardcore or otherwise, who think their conference’s season isn’t long enough. Even at 16 games, they could feel like an eternal slog.

Now, evidently, we’re looking at 20, and Calipari is right. It gives TV networks a little more inventory, and conferences a little more money.

But maybe college basketball should think a little bigger.

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