Strength of schedule is important to basketball coaches. Always has been.
Every season, Big 12 coaches go out of their way to match up their teams against difficult nonconference opponents and, for the most part, are unafraid to take their teams to faraway destinations for early-season tournaments.
This year alone, Kansas State has played Duke, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. Kansas has taken on Arizona, Memphis and UCLA.
When Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford hears those big names, he nods in approval. The Cowboys play Alabama, Gonzaga and Stanford this season, and he thinks his team will benefit from each game.
But he warns fans to enjoy it while it lasts. Next season, when the Big 12 drops to 10 teams and shifts from a 16-game conference schedule to an 18-game round-robin schedule, he would like to keep those grueling nonconference games to a minimum.
"We put together a tough schedule with a few games that we still have to return," Ford said. "I probably wouldn't have scheduled those games if I knew we were going to an 18-game league schedule. You're talking about 18 games against the best competition in the country. You can't kill yourself out of conference."
The majority of Big 12 coaches feel the same way. When asked how Nebraska and Colorado leaving the league will affect their philosophies on scheduling, nine coaches said they planned to downgrade the quality of future nonconference opponents in some way.
They said there was no other option.
"Those 18 games are going to be a grind, and when it's over your conference record is going to speak for itself," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "You've got to find a way, especially when you're a team like us, to get some wins early in the season and build some momentum before conference play."
That means replacing difficult home-and-home series against name opponents with easier guarantee games against mid-major foes, and, coincidentally or not, the end of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series.
When facing a 16-game league schedule, Big 12 teams had 15 nonconference games to arrange in any way they chose. Teams often used the flexibility to schedule tough, fan-enticing games that helped them build a resume worthy of the NCAA Tournament. But with two more league games, the conference season will be tougher than and that flexibility will evaporate.
Some predict drastic changes.
"You're increasing your games against high-major opponents by two," Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. "You're going from 16 to 18. For teams like us in the south, now we're getting Kansas twice, Missouri twice, Kansas State twice. That makes things a lot more difficult. It could be like the Big East. It's definitely going to change the way we schedule."
Some, like Kansas coach Bill Self, who will take the Jayhawks to play Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State in the new Champions Classic over the next three seasons, envision only minor scheduling tweeks.
"If you want to keep your number of hard games the same you may back off a little bit during your nonconference," Self said. "Right now, our goal is to play six high-major games a year nonconference. So that number may go to four, that number may go to five.
"But I think very few schools will keep it at six, if that's their number. That's an awful lot. That would be 24 games of the 31, and then you've got the postseason tournaments. That's a pretty high-stress situation."
Kansas State coach Frank Martin said he, too, expects to be more selective in choosing nonconference opponents in the future — but there's still plenty of intriguing assignments on the horizon with return games against Virginia Tech, Alabama and Florida, and a trip next season to a tournament in Cancun, Mexico.
One coach who says he isn't planning to cut back is Texas' Rick Barnes. The Longhorns have already faced Illinois, Pittsburgh and Southern California this season, and will take on North Carolina, Michigan State, Arkansas and Connecticut before conference play begins.
No matter how demanding the Big 12 may become, he doesn't see that changing.
"We've gotten our program to a point where we are always playing a national non-league schedule," Barnes said. "I don't think we'll change much. We might. We may have the best basketball league in the country, but at this point we haven't looked to back off what we've done in the past."
Ford wishes his best to any Big 12 team willing to stick with that strategy, but he and many of his coaching peers have decided to go in a different direction.
They still value strength of schedule. They simply think the new Big 12 will be stronger than it's ever been.
"If you compete in those 18 games and you can finish in the top six or seven with a winning record, I don't care what you've done out of conference," Ford said. "You're going to make it into the NCAA Tournament. Do you need to test your team to get ready for the Big 12? Yes. But you won't need to overly cover yourself and schedule hard to try and make the tournament. You certainly won't need to do that anymore."