Non-conference basketball scheduling is an art. Over-schedule and you can wreck a team's confidence and postseason prospects. Under-schedule and you don't prepare your team for conference battles, which also can ruin postseason prospects.
Toss in some marquee TV games for exposure, recruiting and money. Plus, major conference teams need a certain number of home games for the financial good of the overall athletic department.
“Scheduling is very important,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “It's right there along side recruiting. It's a big challenge.”
How do you find a balance?
It depends on your perspective.
“You do need to challenge yourself outside the league,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, “but you have to be careful. It's great to say we're going to take them all on, but it's a function of experience, what type of scorers do you have coming back, do you think you can go on the road, are you mature enough and tough enough, are you ready?
“You have to be careful with over-scheduling, in particular with a young team. I try to assess where I think I'll be. We schedule a year or two ahead. It's a projection of what your team will be like.”
Take No. 6 Indiana, which spent most of the early season ranked No. 1. It combined a veteran group with one of the nation's top freshman classes, yet had the easiest non-conference schedule in coach Tom Crean's five seasons. The biggest reasons -- Kentucky is no longer in the picture, and the Hoosiers (11-1) don't play a true road game.
Ten of Indiana's 13 non-conference games are at Assembly Hall. Of its first nine home opponents, only North Carolina was ranked, and IU still won by 24 points. The Hoosiers' average home victory margin is 36.6 points. They outscore opponents by 30.1 points overall.
They end non-conference play on Friday against Jacksonville (5-7).
Crean said strength of schedule isn't as much a priority as projecting the caliber of opponents.
“We try to look at the statistics and the past with who they have coming back,” he said.
Crean said the Hoosiers will add or subtract a home game depending on whether they have a home or road game in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. He also said they're trying to schedule more in-state schools.
“We've been able to do that more and more. We played Ball State this year (winning 101-53). We were at Evansville last year. Evansville will be here next year. Last year we had the tournament where we had three home games, Butler had three home games, and then Butler was here.
“There are a couple of different components.”
Purdue (5-6) has played two non-conference road games -- Eastern Michigan and Clemson (as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge) -- and lost them both. It also lost at home to Bucknell and Xavier, plus lost to Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic at Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and lost two more in New York City (Villanova and Oregon State) as part of the 2K Sports Classic.
You could argue this was too strong a schedule for a team as young as the Boilers (six freshmen and sophomores are key contributors compared to just one senior), but coach Matt Painter won't use that as an excuse.
“You have to get your guys out there and see how they react to being on the road and not getting calls,” he said. “You find out a lot about your team.”
Notre Dame (12-1) has become a consistent NCAA tourney participant under coach Mike Brey, with appearances in five of the last six years and eight times since 2001, and he has no plans for that to change. Part of that is ensuring his non-conference schedule impresses the NCAA selection committee along with preparing the Irish for conference play.
“I don't know if we've ever been in a rebuilding year,” he said. “I don't want to be in a rebuilding year. You always want to be consistent and be playing for a (NCAA tourney) bid. We'll have 18 league games, and they'll all be hard. We'll have four power games, and go from there.”
Brey's four-power-game non-conference approach for this year means two neutral-site games in an exempt event (St. Joseph's and Brigham Young in the CVC Classic), the Crossroads Classic (a win over Purdue) and the SEC-Big East Challenge (the Irish beat Kentucky).
Notre Dame's move from the Big East to the ACC will put it in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“We've talked about playing four power games in the non-league segment,” Brey said. “That's been what we do. It's been a good philosophy for us. A smart philosophy for us. I don't think that will change.”
Brey envisions tweaking that approach to keep part of the old Big East connection going. He'd like a schedule that includes a rotation with Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette and DePaul. Those four Catholic schools, along with St. John's, Seton Hall and Providence, are leaving the Big East to form their own conference.
“I'd like to get them involved in our non-league schedule,” Brey said. “I think they'll all be receptive to that.”
Ohio State's Thad Matta looks for non-conference scheduling variety. His Buckeyes have played at Duke (and lost) and hosted Kansas (and lost). The season-opening game against Marquette on an aircraft carrier in South Carolina was cancelled because of slippery court conditions.
“We try to find some different styles, try to see something we'll see in the Big Ten,” he said.
“We try to play on battleship more for our players to build a memory for them. In the Big Ten-ACC Challenge you always play a great opponent. I don't know if there's a magic formula that we want to hit.”
Magic, Groce said, gives way to practicality.
“The key is balance.”