College basketball's unique scheduling idea this season is a blast from the past
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Real quick, before we get to the newsletter, I have a quick business note I want to share.
I have about 12 copies available of my college football What If book that I'm happy to sign and send out. I'll give a free signed copy to anybody who upgrades to the super deluxe paid membership tier this month. I will also sell a limited run of signed copies. These go for $18 (that includes shipping). If you'd like a signed copy, please email me or Twitter DM with your address. If these go quickly, I might be able to get in another run before the holidays, but these days, you never know.
Speaking of merch, I am juuuust about out of my current stock of Extra Points stickers. I am planning on re-ordering more, but I thought it might be fun to be able to offer other designs. If you have any idea for what you'd like to see on future stickers, I'm all ears, and hey, if you're a graphic designer, I'd happily pay for another fun merch design. I'm at [email protected]
Now, I'm happy to turn the floor over to Andy, who has a cool story on how a conference, which faced with a big scheduling problem thanks to realignment defections, found a creative solution by bringing back a classic idea from the past.
“The excitement of the unknown is about to become known,” Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett said, before spinning a metal cage eight times, as 16 ping pong balls rattled inside the cylinder.
“Game 1’s first team will be,” Burnett continued, pausing briefly as he reached inside the cage to pull out a white ping pong ball, “the New Orleans Privateers.”
“So New Orleans is the first team in Game 1 and they will play…,” he said, before repeating the process, “the Northwestern State Lady Demons.”
As a creative byproduct of conference realignment and as part of fulfilling an agreement with a major broadcast partner, the Southland Conference will open the New Year with conference games that won’t actually count towards the regular-season conference standings. The 2022 Southland Basketball Tip-Off Event will bring the men’s and women’s basketball teams from each of the conference’s eight member schools to Katy, Texas, shortly after the turn of the New Year for a pair of three-day, eight-team tournaments that run consecutively from Jan. 3-8.
The women’s tournament will take place from Monday through Wednesday, followed by the men’s tournament from Thursday through Saturday at the Leonard E. Merrell Center.
For basketball fans, particularly those who follow the NBA, the YouTube video of Burnett pulling labeled ping pong balls out of a mixer was almost a cross between the NBA draft lottery and the ever-theorized NBA midseason cup, a la European soccer, where teams would compete in a different tournament that wouldn’t necessarily have implications on the regular season standings but would put another type of championship on the line.
“I think certainly, as everyone knows, we’ve been impacted by realignment and when we found out in January that we’d be losing some members, I think there was a quick count of what the potential games would be in all of our conference schedules and you realize that to play a good, clean, double round-robin men’s or women’s basketball schedule, that’s going to get you to 14 games,” Burnett said in a phone interview.
What was previously a 13-member conference last basketball season has been cut to eight schools this season, following the departures of Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin to the WAC, and Central Arkansas to the ASUN. The Southland instituted a 20-game conference basketball schedule for the 2020 season, a number that now represents 2.5 times as many games as there are current members, and hours after Extra Points spoke with Burnett, Yahoo reported that Incarnate Word and McNeese State will leave the Southland to join the WAC. Our Matt Brown later confirmed that report.
“There was talk almost immediately about adding additional games, perhaps somehow trying to even triple up at times,” Burnett said, regarding the previous wave of defections, “but you’re already playing your conference opponents twice, so I think it was problematic to say, ‘Well, let’s just add additional conference games.’ So instead, the conversation turned to – and I’m old enough to remember the old holiday classics that the Big 8 Conference used to play, I think the ACC used to play – but somewhat similar to that, we kind of realized we were going to have this opening that first full week of January, and could we bring our teams together in some way?”
It harks back to the days when there were upwards of 20 holiday classics, festivals and invitationals in a season that were scheduled sometime between late December and early January. Eight-team conferences, such as the Big 8 and Southwest Conference, would name a preseason tournament champion that needed to win three games to earn the crown.
(The Wichita Eagle | Dec. 31, 1957)
‘The sky’s the limit on something like this and we’ve got to acknowledge, we’ve never done this before, either’
Burnett credits the conference’s basketball coaches and athletic directors for thinking outside the box as the conference sought to play more Division I games and fulfill its contractual agreement with ESPN.
“It’s part of the original deal,” he said. “We obviously have an obligation to produce content as part of that agreement. I think all conferences have something similar in place and so we’ll just kind of add it to the inventory but within those broadcasts, because we’ll be going from 11 in the morning until possibly 10 o’clock at night, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity to promote not only the games themselves, but what else is going on around the conference, what these universities are doing, talking with athletic directors, coaches when they’re not playing.
“Maybe we have some scouts there, some other folks that would be interested in visiting as well. The sky’s the limit on something like this and we’ve got to acknowledge, we’ve never done this before, either, so we’re kind of discovering things every day as that event draws closer.”
The Southland Basketball Tip-Off Event, he noted, will actually be larger than the Southland Conference tournament. It’ll be 24 games between the men’s and women’s tournaments, whereas the two conference tournaments will feature just 14 games due to the single-elimination nature of the postseason. All 24 games will be broadcast on ESPN+.
“It’s going to be a lot of basketball compressed in a six-day period,” Burnett said, “but we’ve had a lot of enthusiasm for it and you saw us get a little creative in how we selected the teams.”
The conference is devising a “really cool” trophy for the event and while an automatic bid won’t be at stake for the men’s and women’s basketball players in the conference like there is at the conference tournament, Burnett said, “Let’s not limit it to just thinking they’re basketball games and roll the balls out there and let them play. We do want to be creative, we do want to have fun.”
All-day general admission tickets are $20 for four games and the conference is working on incentives to encourage fans to travel to Katy.
‘Our folks have been focused on staying close to home and we’re really exhausting every opportunity to find potential members that agree with that’
Initially, there were some discussions about whether the neutral-site games in Katy should count towards the regular-season conference standings, Burnett said. Or, at the very least, the question was asked about whether those games should serve as an additional tiebreaker, if needed.
But the coaches were unanimous in not wanting to disrupt the 14-game, double round-robin schedule. (For conferences that don’t have such a perfect home-and-home scheduling arrangement, may we suggest turning to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted winning percentage model as a potential tiebreaker?)
So, kind of like undefeated Wake Forest’s unusual road game against in-state, ACC foe North Carolina in Week 10 of the college football season that was scheduled as a non-conference series, the results from the Southland Basketball Tip-Off Event won’t affect the conference standings. They’re technically non-conference games.
Burnett acknowledged the realities of the short-term benefits and necessities of the Tip-Off, due to the decrease in the conference’s members.
“We needed more games,” he said. “We wanted more Division I opportunities, so this is what that kind of serves as, in addition to trying to create something here that we haven’t seen before, or maybe not in a long time.”
Depending on the future of the Southland Conference and future conference realignment decisions, the Tip-Off itself may not last a long time, but conference stakeholders haven’t decided that it’s a one-year event. Texas A&M-Commerce will officially join the Southland next July, which, prior to this week's realignment news, was scheduled to put the conference at nine members and disrupt the clean bracketing of an eight-team, three-round tournament like the Tip-Off.
“If you start to add, and we’ve added a ninth member for next year and hope to do more of that, but does the math work to do something like this as cleanly as we’re doing it with eight members?” Burnett asked rhetorically. “So it remains to be seen but we certainly haven’t closed the door to possibly doing this again. How all of that attaches to conference realignment and the potential for the future, I think we do want people to know that we’re flexible, we’re nimble, we’ve got good ideas.”
Where do things stand regarding the stated goal of expansion for the Southland Conference, as it prepares to welcome Texas A&M-Commerce and will say goodbye to Incarnate Word and McNeese State?
“Our focus is to be regional,” Burnett said. “Right now, we’re the only Division I conference that’s based entirely in the Central Time Zone. We have made a commitment to being geographically sound. We’re not going to send volleyball and softball teams across the country to play conference competition.
“Our folks have been focused on staying close to home and we’re really exhausting every opportunity to find potential members that agree with that and want to be close to home when they compete. We’ve got a great advantage, I think we’re the only Division I conference with membership in Dallas-Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans, so we’ve got these major metros in our part of the country and three of which are top-10 markets, and feel like that plays to our advantage as well. A population that continues to boom and will continue to be valuable for not only recruiting student-athletes but recruiting regular students as well, so there’s a lot of things up in the air but we feel like we’ve got some advantages that help us with some opportunities moving forward.”
Every current Southland Conference member is located within 400 miles of Katy, setting up for manageable travel around the holidays for teams and fans alike who attend the Tip-Off, which is one of the benefits of having a tight conference footprint.
While the Southland Conference’s future expansion (and as a result, the future of the Tip-Off) is unknown – at least publicly, given recent reports – it’s probably safe to say the future of the conference’s footprint is known: the greater San Antonio-Dallas-Houston-New Orleans corridor. At least...for now.
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