The Big 12/SEC Challenge Needs to Rethink Its Scheduling PrinciplesPosted by Chris Johnson on May 16th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The beauty of early non-conference tournaments exists in their compressed schedules. Teams with different capabilities and ceilings typically meet up in a tropical locale, stage a raft of competitive games in a compacted two or three-day window, a champion is crowned and, fin. That is how non-conference events should be: quick, clean, blurringly thrilling, a drive-by snapshot of prospective NCAA Tournament match-ups, a winter sampling of the sport’s crowning postseason event. Think Feast Week, or the Champions Classic, or Maui. The accumulation of quality teams and coaches and players gives each event its own unique brand of entertainment value each and every year, but the timeless temporal convenience of rapid-fire completion is what we value most. It calls upon the spirit of March in November, with more equalized match-ups, less auto-birth low-majors and coaches in ridiculous Hawaiian floral shirts. These cute little early-season gauntlets don’t need fixing. Make more of them. Invite better teams.
Whatever you do, non-conference scheduling lords, do not take any cues from the new Big 12/SEC Challenge. The leagues announced their 2013 lineup Tuesday, and at least two of the match-ups belong in the apex of this season’s partially uncovered non-conference slate. On Friday, December 6, Kentucky and its intergalactic force of indomitable freshmen will take on Baylor, who returns one of the more athletic and imposing frontcourts (Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson, Ricardo Gathers) in the country. Four days later, Kansas will take its Andrew Wiggins-equipped squad (an aside: You have no idea how great it feels not to have to include the standard “we don’t know where he’s going” disclaimer every time I type Wiggins’ name. Wiggins, Kansas, got it.) to Gainesville for a meeting with five-star freshmen Kasey Hill, Chris Walker and a respectable supporting group. Those are two excellent December match-ups, spaced just four days apart, stuffed with freshmen intrigue and NBA lottery talent and future Hall of Fame coaches. They are the kinds of games everyone lives for in college basketball’s fluff-filled non-conference season.
Games like that are special in any context – sterile and ill-fitting and the unauthentic JerryDome included. Where they would look and feel even more consequential is in a tight-knit knockout-style event with real competitive stakes and an actual tournament-style format. Unfortunately, they are locked into the Big 12/SEC challenge. This is not a positive development. Allow me to explain.
I highlighted two games in the lineup for simple reasons. Florida never doesn’t look like a Final Four contender in November and December. Baylor has followed this almost creepily weird make-the-Elite Eight-fall-drastically-short-of-expectations alternating pattern thing (and this season, following last year’s NIT championship, is almost guaranteed to bring a regional finals appearance) for the past few seasons. Kentucky will be forced to start every game with at least two McDonald’s All-Americans on the bench. Kansas will be a hot ticket basically anytime it takes the court, thanks to Tuesday’s Wigginsian surprise. It’s not hard to get behind any of these storylines. The thing is, these two games – and the heart-pounding themes and players and coaches within – are all the event that houses them, the Big 12/SEC challenge, has going for it.
For the type X football-inclined December TV viewer, no other game on that schedule screams must-watch, or even “ok, I’ll flip over to that after the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.” Part of the reason why is a fact of modern power conference college hoops reality: There are a lot of bad teams in the SEC and Big 12. But just as much of it falls on the leagues themselves, for coming up with the absolute worst scheduling structure of all-time (superlative emphasis mine). On the occasions when the Big 12 and SEC do feature a deep stable of top teams and prospectively thrilling match-ups, the format massacres even the slightest buildup of competitive momentum or continuous fan appeal. Viewers like to understand the larger significance of games for more than one winner and one loser. Each discrete outcome should affect a larger conference-wide goal, which the Big 12/SEC challenge does, kind of, only it’s practically impossible to connect dots and string together who beat whom and what means what and where each league stands after each game. When the first game, Texas Tech at Alabama, tips off on November 14, and the last, Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M, finishes up on December 21, how is anyone normal human being supposed to keep track of conference win totals or league competition or the very competitive structure underlying this slate of games? By the time the Sooners take the floor four days before Christmas, will anyone – outside of coaches and players and the most ardent sects of the fan bases involved – going to know why, how, or for what Oklahoma and Texas A&M are playing a game in late December?
There is no sense of continuity to tie the entire thing together, and frankly, if there was, I’m not so sure the event would be particularly exciting this season anyway – outside of the two games I mentioned above. This is a scheduling recipe for disaster; how do conference commissioners not put heads together and formulate a more streamlined and sensible rundown of games? The Big Ten/ACC challenge, played over two days, gets right at the core of what makes well-staged non-conference events so very enjoyable. Condensed drama is the main objective, and the SEC and Big 12 completely missed the point here.
The most logical path to an improved non-conference season is to offer more of college basketball’s most exciting characteristics – single elimination, tournament-formats, do-or-die competitiveness. Removing whatever the Big 12/SEC challenge believed would make five weeks of mostly uninteresting, oddly disjointed, horribly planned interconference competition a sound scheduling strategy is another recommended step forward.