Wichita State Shockers

NCAA Tournament becomes a time to network for future scheduling

The Wichita Eagle

Darron Boatright is ready to start networking again this March. While the Wichita State basketball team is playing games, Boatright is working on the schedule for next season and beyond.

The NCAA Tournament is a good time for him to meet people from other schools and become a match-maker. Last year, at the Final Four, he met with representatives from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., about neutral-site games in that arena. Boatright is WSU’s senior associate athletic director and he works closely with the basketball program on scheduling.

“You always build relationships and talk scheduling philosophies,” he said. “That’s what you find out — who has what philosophy. Who wants to build a competitive schedule, and who wants to build in wins?”

WSU and New Mexico played separate games in Salt Lake City last season during the tournament’s opening weekend and Boatright spent time with their administrators. The Lobos and Shockers will see other again in St. Louis this weekend, although they are in different regions. The schools are talking seriously about a future series, Boatright said, and New Mexico isn’t the only appealing prospect.

“We’ve had in-depth conversations this year — real conversations, not just phone calls — with New Mexico, Utah, Purdue, Connecticut, Memphis,” he said. “We have some dates on the table with some of those folks that they know we’re willing to play. All of those teams are, or were, willing to play us if things would just work out.”

Real conversations, in Boatright’s mind, means discussing sites and dates. Sometimes an attractive series dies because the schools can’t find a date that works, wedged in among tournaments, established series, guaranteed home games, exams and holiday breaks in November and December. The wishes of TV networks can complicate, or accelerate, the process.

He said more administrators are working on schedules, which he sees as a good trend. Coaches may schedule to win games and keep their record healthy. Administrators, in his mind, can make tougher decisions to position their team to make the NCAA Tournament by building a strong non-conference strength of schedule.

It is no coincidence that many of the schools talking with WSU are members of conferences that need to grab more at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. The SEC placed three of its 14 members in the NCAA Tournament. The Mountain West, with 11 members, earned one at-large bid. Connecticut and Memphis are members of the American Athletic Conference, which loses Louisville to the ACC and is burdened by a weak bottom half.

Oklahoma, Boatright said, also fits in the category of serious discussion and the Tennessee series may continue, if not next year, in the future. All of those schools except one discussed home-and-home series. Boatright declined to be more specific, saying an announcement of a neutral-site game is in the works.

Wichita State is willing to begin good series on the road next season because its home schedule is strong. Alabama, Tulsa and Saint Louis will visit Wichita. That helps, because schools are often more willing to start a series when it starts with a home game.

“We need a road game or two for next year,” Boatright said. “Now, as our brand grows, we’re involved in a lot more conversations … more willingness to have legitimate conversations. Now people aren’t afraid of playing Wichita State, and if they happen to lose, they don’t have to defend it.”

What hasn’t changed is WSU’s refusal to play a road game for a check and no return game. Accepting that kind of a deal would hurt WSU’s ability to land a home-and-home series.

“It compromises what you’re doing,” Boatright said. “Florida straight-up offered us money. We weren’t interested in that. In Tennessee’s mind, there’s no difference between Tennessee and Florida.”

Wichita State’s much-discussed non-conference schedule produced five NCAA Tournament teams — fifth-seeded Saint Louis, No. 10 BYU, No. 11 Tennessee, No. 13 Tulsa and No. 14 North Carolina Central. William & Mary lost 75-74 in the championship game of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament to Delaware. According to CBSSports.com’s RPI, WSU’s non-conference strength of schedule ranks No. 28 nationally. All five NCAA teams are ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. WSU played one non-conference opponent (No. 300 Tennessee State) ranked lower than 200.

Those numbers tell Boatright his work and the work of the coaches paid off. Their goal is to put the Shockers in position to earn an at-large bid. Although WSU didn’t need that route, it compiled a satisfactory resume for a third straight season. That is not an easy task for a Missouri Valley Conference school.

“When it comes to evaluating a schedule, you can’t look at a single game and you have to let the whole year play out,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your RPI is or what your strength of schedule is in February or January. It doesn’t matter. Those teams we played ended up holding their own. The rewarding part is, we get to do it again.”

Shockers No. 2 — Wichita State is No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll of the season, its best finish in the ranking.

WSU (34-0) received 15 first-place votes and 1,571 points. No. 1 Florida (32-2) received 50 first-place votes and 1,610 points.

WSU is also No. 2 in the coaches poll, which will conduct its final poll after the NCAA Tournament.

The Shockers finished fifth in the final AP poll in 1963 and 1964, its previous best ranking.

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