In the summer of 2010, LeBron James held up the Missouri Valley Conference basketball schedule.
James waited until July 8 to choose the Miami Heat as his destination. That decision caused ESPN to wait on its NBA schedule so it could showcase James’ team. That delayed college schedules, which trickled down to the MVC.
“It affected the entire food chain,” said Jack Watkins, MVC associate commissioner for marketing and television. “Sometimes there are external factors we can’t control.”
One year it’s LeBron James. Another year it’s an NHL lockout. Or the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Putting together the MVC men’s basketball schedule for this season required 25 computer-aided versions and two adjustments to produce a satisfactory plan.
When it is done – double-checked by the 10 schools – the conference office can check off one its biggest annual tasks.
“It is a great relief,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said.
Elgin is more relieved than usual with the recent release of this season’s 90-game, double round-robin MVC schedule. The format changed significantly this season with the elimination of BracketBusters weekend. The opening of a February weekend eased the crunch of cramming three games into a week last season, a major complaint of coaches.
Creighton’s departure for the Big East also helped, removing one civic arena with a large number of blackout dates from the puzzle. New member Loyola controls the dates in its on-campus arena, offering more flexibility to schedule-makers.
Four MVC staffers work with Bortz Media & Sports Group, a Denver company that lists the NBA, NHL and several college conferences among its clients. This is the Valley’s eighth year working with Bortz managing director Arthur Steiker and the company’s computer scheduling program.
ESPN weighs in
The process starts in June when the MVC compiles requests and calendars from its schools.
Requests from ESPN for prime matchups are always a guiding force. For this season, Indiana State at Wichita State topped ESPN’s wish list. The teams will meet on Jan. 18 at Koch Arena as part of ESPN’s themed week highlighting home courts around the country. The Valley builds its schedule with its three ESPN2 games and six on ESPNU of prime importance.
“TV dictates the first games on the board,” Watkins said.
The target for delivery is the end of August. Scheduling is guided by a list of competitive and non-competitive parameters.
Coaches pay close attention to opening and closing sequences and the MVC wants all schools to open and close with one of two and two of four games at home.
Elgin said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall’s lone scheduling request is that his team not start with three of four on the road.
All schools want weekend dates. All schools put in requests for games pegged to special events, such as a hall of fame induction.
The ideal week of games, from the standpoint of attracting the best officiating crews, puts two games on Tuesday, three on Wednesday, three on Saturday and two on Sunday. That helps the MVC attract top referees for Tuesday and Sunday (when competition from other conferences is lowest) and pay them a bonus if they choose to work back-to-back MVC games.
“You compare it to previous years, and I think it’s the best we’ve ever had for minimizing flaws,” Elgin said. “We’ve learned so much (from Steiker). We’ve learned a lot about sequencing, about spacing games. He used to tell that us unless everybody has played five games by Martin Luther King Monday (Jan. 20), you won’t find a solution. We used to allow more non-conference action after Christmas.”
Wichita State got caught in one issue last season. The Valley tracks what it calls the fresh/tired/even factor to make preparation time between games as equal as possible. It is one of the biggest concerns coaches express.
Last season, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships took over Omaha’s CenturyLink Center for more than a week in late January. That affected every school’s schedule and sent the Bluejays on the road for three straight games from Jan. 19-27. Nobody outside of Omaha felt bad for the Bluejays, the only team to face such an issue.
But those blackout dates also helped produce a schedule in which Creighton played five games with a rest advantage over its opponent and one at a disadvantage, the best situation of any school. Wichita State played one game with a rest edge and four at a disadvantage, the worst variance of the four schools on the negative side of the rest advantage.
“Much to our horror,” Elgin said. “(But) Wichita State didn’t complain. We didn’t hear a word from them. They just laced them up and went to the Final Four.”
That issue highlights the connective tissue of scheduling. Moving one game creates a ripple that can affect 20 games. It also highlights the role of ESPN, which gives the MVC its preferred matchups and dates early in the process and the rest of the schedule is built around those preferences. Both Creighton-Wichita State games last season (Jan. 19 and March 2) appeared on ESPN2 and Creighton had an extra day of rest before the first meeting, a game it lost 67-64 at Koch Arena.
“It’s easy to look at Creighton having a run of three away due to facility and say ‘That’s too bad,’” MVC associate commissioner Greg Walter said. “That has an impact on other teams and it has an impact throughout the scheduling in sequencing of opponents. Other facilities have limitations. All those things play together to restrict the available options you have to make a perfect schedule.”
Stitching together every request for 10 schools to make a document perfect for all is impossible. The schedule-makers consider available arena dates, special events such as winter homecoming, the first day of class, the Super Bowl and rivalries.
“Ourselves, along with nine other member schools, we want to play every Saturday at home,” Wichita State senior associate athletic director Darron Boatright said. “There are 10 conspiracies out there, depending on which fan base you’re talking about, on who got protected and who they always take care of. What they’re doing can’t be perfect.”