MANHATTAN — When ESPN chose Saturday's Sunflower Showdown as the backdrop for its weekly "College GameDay" telecast, it did so thinking it had found the perfect setting for its traveling show of basketball analysis.
Both Kansas and Kansas State came into the season ranked in the top 10, and both were projected to challenge for a Big 12 championship. Factor in a heated rivalry and the big ratings produced by both teams last year in Manhattan, and their first meeting of 2011 seemed like a can't-miss game.
But only the No. 6 Jayhawks are ranked today. The Wildcats, unable to live up to lofty preseason expectations, are no longer receiving votes in the Associated Press poll and are trying to play their way back into the NCAA Tournament seedingconversation.
Therein lies the challenge of scheduling TV games several months in advance.
The Big 12 and ESPN agreed on a schedule last summer, allowing months to go by and outlooks of teams to dramatically change. Unlike football, for which television networks select games to broadcast two weeks ahead of time, master plans don't always work out.
"We don't hit home runs every time," said ESPN director of programming and acquisitions Nick Dawson. "There are times when teams don't perform as well as we thought they might and times when teams perform much better. It's difficult, but that's what makes the game exciting."
Kansas and K-State could still deliver in that area and produce an entertaining game, but if ESPN had the gift of hindsight it would surely rather be televising one of the four games taking place between ranked teams Saturday in other parts of the country as its marquee game.
Still, a top-10 team taking on its rival can be compelling TV.
"It's not a problem," said Big 12 senior associate commissioner Tim Allen. "We don't get frustrated if a game doesn't turn out to be the blockbuster you expect it to be. There's still some interest that goes with the teams that have had success in recent years. They're still going to have ratings viability. People will watch a struggling team this game or that game to see if they're going to snap out of it."
That was certainly the main appeal for ESPN's latest installment of "Big Monday," which featured two disappointing teams — Baylor and K-State. Based on the preseason rankings, it was supposed to be a matchup of top-20 teams. Instead, unranked opponents.
The Big 12 ran into a similar dilemma last year, when Texas took a nosedive late in the season and Oklahoma turned into one of the conference's worst teams. When the Longhorns and Sooners met in one of the season's final "Big Monday" telecast, there was little intrigue.
"Teams can play their way on and their way off TV," Allen said. "Sometimes you miss a school by a year. Last year there were a whole host of Texas games on national TV. ESPN maybe looked at that and decided rather than have them on 'Big Monday' four times, let's cut back. Then all of a sudden, boom, they're having a great year. That's just how it goes."
And sometimes it goes the other way. No. 7 Texas and No. 13 Texas A&M will meet on the next "Big Monday." Kansas and No. 11 Missouri will meet the week after. Allen can remember a year when the old Big Eight put the nation's top-ranked team on ESPN three straight Mondays, with the No. 1 team changing each week.
The process begins in May, when the Big 12 puts together a list of close to 15 games it considers worthy of "Big Monday" and "College GameDay." ESPN compiles a list of its own, and the sides compare notes.
CBS normally buys two games from ESPN, and ESPN and the Big 12 work around that.
"We hammer out the details," Allen said. "We have experts and they have experts."
All kinds of information goes into making the selections. In the case of K-State, which ESPN decided to feature on "Big Monday" four times and "College GameDay" once this season, the Wildcats appeared to have everything going for them.
"In May and June we looked at their roster, and I think they brought back the majority of their roster from a team I thought really emerged onto the national picture," Dawson said. "We felt like, honestly, they would be an exciting team that was right there competing for a Big 12 championship."
The same could have been said for Kansas, Texas, Baylor, Texas A&M and Missouri, who all play on "Big Monday" this season.
There is no perfect criteria to go by.
"I always think we have a great slate of games," Allen said. "Sometimes you miss on a game and a team, and you make mistakes. In hindsight, there are things you would have done differently had you only known. Other times it all works out naturally. You've got to remember it's all cyclical."