When fans of Conference USA men’s basketball teams look at their schedules for the coming season, they will see a curious twist in February: The dates of the games are set, but not the opponents. It is part of a new, innovative approach designed to finally get the conference an elusive second N.C.A.A. tournament bid.
Conference USA, a Division I league made up of 14 teams in the South, has had a pretty remarkable run of success in recent years — in the last four N.C.A.A. tournaments, its teams have knocked off two, three, four and five seeds.
But despite that, the league remains stubbornly disrespected by the selection committee. For the last six years it has earned just a single bid annually. It aims to break that cycle this season with the new schedule.
Here’s how it works:
• Conference USA’s teams will start with a traditional schedule, playing every other team once and a traditional rival twice. But the last four games of the season will be different.
• Teams will be broken into three groups after the first 14 conference games. The top group, with the teams in first through fifth place, a middle group of teams 6-10, and a bottom group of teams 11-14.
• The teams will then play the others in their group once more each. The result will be a tougher schedule for the top teams, and perhaps a better ranking when the committee meets to pick the N.C.A.A. field. Strength of schedule is always a key factor in the committee’s deliberations.
“The knock on our teams has been you don’t have enough top 50 wins, top 100,” said Judy MacLeod, commissioner of Conference USA. “Well, we don’t have an opportunity to play those opponents.” Without those chances, the question becomes, she said, “How can we take our own schedule and make sure our better teams are playing our better teams?”
There is a lot of money in the N.C.A.A. tournament, and the more teams a conference gets in, the more money it makes. Conference USA spreads that wealth around, as most other leagues do. So every team would benefit from a second bid if the league were able to get one.
Last season, Marshall won the conference’s tournament as the No. 4 seed and earned the N.C.A.A. berth. Middle Tennessee (25-8), Old Dominion (25-7) Western Kentucky (27-11) and three other 20-win teams all had to make do with the N.I.T., or in some cases no tournament at all.
The new scheduling may help the teams that do make the N.C.A.A. tournament get better seeding as well. The last four teams to make the tournament from the conference were seeded 12th to 15th.
“One of our issues is perception,” McLeod said. “If our teams had been seeded 7, or 10 even, would they have progressed farther? Maybe the first time, we don’t get another team in, but we get a much better seed. We felt it was worth the chance to try it.”
In the end, only four games for each team will be affected by the new schedule, but McLeod said she believed that might be enough to make a difference. “Just one data point might put one team in over another.”
There are pitfalls to leaving holes in the schedule to be filled later, notably travel. Conference USA has teams spread from West Virginia to Texas. Arduous road trips can be eased with careful preseason planning. But no one will know where they will be traveling in mid-February until the last minute. The conference plans to take a one-week break before the bonus games begin to try to find the best sequence of games.
While teams in the top division will be the chief beneficiaries of the new scheduling, McLeod feels that every team could profit from it. “Those last weeks everyone will be playing like teams. There will be more fan engagement. Everyone will be having an opportunity to win.”
Even the teams in the bottom group, ranked 11 to 14, who might be thought to face some stigma, will have something to play for. Only 12 teams make the conference tournament, and the last four games among that group should be crucial for determining those berths.
The conference tournament will be mostly unchanged, but teams in the top group will not fall below a 5 seed, since it would hardly be fair for a top team to lose to several tough teams and fall behind a team with an easier schedule.
As for the women, the conference will try a different plan. The full schedule will be set in advance, but each team will play its final games against teams that are expected to have similar records. “We’ll have two different models to evaluate,” McLeod said.
Splitting a league into divisions based on record is mostly unknown in the United States, but is used in some European soccer leagues, Scotland for example.
“This is not a cure-all,” McLeod acknowledged. “We’re not going to magically have four teams in the tournament. We’re looking at innovative ways to enhance our résumés.”
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