Monday, December 04, 2006

One Fan's Enjoyment of Non-Conference Play

So, as part of the annual rites of the passage of autumn, the bashing of the Syracuse non-conference schedule has occurred by the national media. Most of those comments are knee jerk reactions by analysts who have far too many teams to follow and too little time to really know the nuances of what each team is actually doing.

And there are elements of hypocrisy in it. Most big schools have the same form of non-conference games.

UConn won’t play a single road game prior to their Big East kick off on 12/30 versus West Virginia. That’s 11 home games, none away from home.

UCLA, current #1 team in the country, has twelve games prior to the start of the Pac-10. 9 are at home; 3 are away from home at the Maui Classic. Course, those are neutral games, not road games.

North Carolina will have fourteen non-conference games; two on the road, with a trip to Tennessee and a trip to Saint Louis.

And then there is Duke, the program beloved by so many announcers. These announcers would never criticize Duke. That’s not the Blue Devils problem, and I don’t begrudge Duke for it. It is a class program. However, let’s be fair. Duke has played 8 games so far this season, all at home. Three more home games until they play Gonzaga on 12/21. Then two more home games before the ACC schedule starts.

And it’s not just this season. In 2005-06, Duke went out on a limb and played three road games in their first thirteen out-of-conference schedule, against Indiana, Texas, and UNC-Greensboro.

In 2004-05, Duke played 11 non-conference games to start the season, all at home except for road game to Valparaiso.

Again, I’m not knocking Duke on this. They’re just doing what everyone else does. But its times for the national announcers to stop singling out Syracuse for its schedule. They are one of many.

I think that the big schools should play the smaller schools in their area every season. These games are extremely important to the small schools, and help the big schools in the process.

The college basketball analysts scream about teams not playing enough big games; but that’s entirely self serving. They want more big games to cover. They’re more fun, and frankly require less homework. How tough is it for Dick Vitale to prepare for a Duke / Georgetown pre-season game? The average fan knows quite a few players on both teams. Preparing for a Duke / Sacred Heart game, however, is much tougher. And of course, announcing a close game is easy… the action speaks for itself. A lopsided game requires the announcer to actually bring something to the table, and stay interested into the game.

There is hypocrisy in who you play. If you schedule a mid-major team (a Bucknell or a Butler), you risk a lot with little in return. When you win the game, announcers will say it was just another win against a creampuff non-conference team. But… you have a chance of losing to those mid-major schools, because as we are now all aware, they are dangerous to play. And losing to those schools will hurt you (any loss should hurt).

I think the big schools not only should play the small local schools, but have an obligation to do so.

By local, I don’t mean just those in your city. But play those small Division I schools in your state. In Syracuse’s case that includes schools such as Colgate, Cornell, Niagara, St.Bonaventure, Canisius, and Siena, among others. It’s a win/win in these games. Usually it’s an easier game for Syracuse, a chance to prep the team and get some revenue for another home town game. The small schools win because they get an opportunity to play a big time school (good for fans and recruiting), and they get a big boost in revenue with their piece of the revenue. And it helps build tradition; and I think tradition is greatly under appreciated by many in college athletics today.

Syracuse has played Colgate 159 times, and the Orangemen lead the series 114-45. They’ve played the Red Raiders more than any other team, and they should keep that going. Canisius 67 times, Cornell 114 times, Niagara 81 times. Surprisingly, they’ve played St. Bonaventure only 24 times prior to this year. Siena only 6 times.

I think it might be nice to see SU play LeMoyne regularly. Amazingly, they’ve only faced 5 times. It would be lopsided, but I think its good sportsmanship to have them play. Where I now live, Pitt plays Division III Carnegie Mellon. It’s a slaughter (though CMU put a scare into Pitt a couple years back with a close halftime score), but it’s a shame if they did not play. The two schools' campuses touch each other, and isn’t a part of collegiate sports the intercollegiate camaraderie? While its mostly about money, its should not be ALL about money.

I do find it offensive when teams scour the nation looking for a creampuff. North Carolina played Sacred Heart (CT) this year. Why? In the past Syracuse has had Coppin State or Bethune-Cookman come up. Again, why? Those games I would agree should not be scheduled. The obligation is only regional.

But I also find it offensive to reward a team for just scheduling tough games. It’s always been my position, you’ve got to prove yourself on the court (or on the field, depending on the sport). Go ahead and schedule the tough games. But you’ve got to win them for it to matter; scheduling them and then going out and losing does not show anything.

Michigan State, in 2003-2004 played a brutal non-conference schedule to start the season with road games at #14 Kansas, UCLA, and #24 Syracuse, and home games against #6 Duke, # 4 Kentucky, and Oklahoma among the eleven first games. They started the season 5-6, ended up 18-12. The NCAA rewarded the Spartans for playing the tough non-conference schedule. Reward teams that play a tough schedule and win the games. It’s a great tie breaker when you are evaluating two close teams. But, in my book, you’ve got to win the games; just scheduling them shouldn’t be enough.

Hey, I enjoy the November and December games. Maybe in part, because when I was growing up those were the games that we could get easily get tickets to. They weren’t in high demand, and crowds weren’t huge. But they were enjoyable. And occasionally you got to see a 40 point effort from Gene Waldron, or 31 points from Howard Triche, or rare collegiate triple double by Derrick Coleman.

But to me, its all part of the college game. The national media is just blind to it.

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