You're supposed to play your rivals twice in college basketball. Twice.
Once at home. Once on the road.
Yet this will not be the case for Michigan next season. Yesterday, the Big Ten released how the 2016 men's basketball conference schedule will be broken down, designating the Big Ten schools with which Michigan will have home-and-home series and the Big Ten schools with which Michigan will have only single-plays. And, for the first time since 1971, Michigan is scheduled to face Michigan State and Ohio State only once each next season. The Spartans in Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes in Columbus. That's it.
Unfortunately, this was bound to happen. When the Big Ten expanded to 14 schools with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the structure for the Big Ten's basketball schedule shifted. Before, with 12 Big Ten schools, each school played seven home-and-home series and four single-plays to complete an 18-game conference schedule. This meant the odds of having a home-and-home series with any given Big Ten rival were 63.6 percent (7-of-11). But, now, with 14 Big Ten schools, each school plays only five home-and-home series and eight single-plays to complete an 18-game conference schedule. This means the odds of having a home-and-home series with any given Big Ten rival are 38.5 percent (5-of-13).
Here's how those odds work when a school, like Michigan, has two Big Ten rivals:
|Big Ten Schedule Format||No H&H With MSU or OSU||H&H With Only MSU||H&H With Only OSU||H&H With Both MSU and OSU|
|7 H&H's and 4 Singles||13.2%||23.2%||23.2%||40.4%|
|5 H&H's and 8 Singles||37.8%||23.7%||23.7%||14.8%|
With the Big Ten's expansion and this new conference schedule structure, the odds that Michigan will not have a home-and-home series with either Michigan State or Ohio State have nearly tripled to 37.8 percent if we assume that scheduling in previous seasons does not affect scheduling in future seasons. While this assumption is false because the Big Ten rotates the teams with which Michigan will have home-and-home series each season, the drastic change in the percentages above still indicates that Michigan facing Michigan State and Ohio State only once each in a season will be much more frequent.
This is unacceptable.
Rivalry games are the regular-season games that coaches want to coach in the most, players want to play in the most, and students and fans care about the most. The stakes are raised. The atmosphere is electric. Bragging rights are on the line. These games are the most important regular-season games on the calendar and can define a season.
So who wants to play those rivals only once? Particularly when it's on the road? No one!
So let's not let it happen anymore.
One idea that's been floated is protected rivals. This would ensure that every Big Ten school would have a protected home-and-home series with another Big Ten school that would never roll off the schedule. On the surface, this seems to solve the issue.
However, this solution spawns other problems. First, not every Big Ten school has a true rival, and those that do may have more than one. Some are perfect fits, like Indiana and Purdue or Northwestern and Illinois, but there are too many complications. Who's Penn State's rival? Are Maryland and Rutgers paired because they're newbies? If Michigan-Michigan State is protected, where does that leave Ohio State? There's no perfect answer, and that'll leave fans of at least one school upset with their protected "rival."
Second, protected rivals will further unbalance an already-uneven conference schedule. With five home-and-home series and eight single-plays, the conference schedule is nothing like a true round robin, and conference strengths of schedule are disparate. Adding a protected rival will make it only worse. For example, if Michigan is paired with Michigan State and Ohio State is paired with Rutgers for a home-and-home series every season, it would give Ohio State an advantage over Michigan and Michigan State. The Buckeyes would face a bottom-dweller twice every season while the Wolverines and the Spartans -- two of the top Big Ten programs -- would clash twice every season. With protected rivals, it would be tougher to claim that the Big Ten regular-season champion is the best team with each school playing such different schedules. And it'd further dilute the weight a Big Ten regular-season title holds, which is the last thing the Big Ten wants.
Another idea would be to increase the number of conference games played in a Big Ten season. With a bump from 18 to 20 conference games, the Big Ten schedule would consist of seven home-and-home series and six single-plays. A bump to 22 conference games would mean nine home-and-home series and four single-plays. Though this would not protect the rivalries, it would decrease the likelihood that a school would not have a home-and-home with its rival and increase the significance of winning the Big Ten regular-season championship by making the Big Ten schedule more of a round robin.
However, the Big Ten would not agree to such a change because it would harm its schools' odds to participate in the NCAA Tournament. More Big Ten games means more opportunities for the Big Ten to beat each other up and damage each other's resumes, limiting the number of schools that the selection committee would deem worthy of an invitation. This damage would be mitigated, or maybe even nonexistent, if every other conference made the decision to increase the number of its conference games to 20 or 22 games. But, because it'd be unlikely for other conferences to follow suit, the Big Ten should remain pat at 18 conference games. The NCAA Tournament is too important.
That leaves us with one option: non-conference games against conference rivals.
Yes, you read that correctly.
When the Big Ten announces that Michigan is scheduled to play Michigan State or Ohio State only once the next season, Michigan should reach out to that rival and schedule a non-conference game on the campus that won't be host to the Big Ten meeting. It's the best solution. It ensures that Michigan will play its rivals twice every season -- once at home and once on the road. It doesn't further widen the gap between schools' conference strengths of schedule. And, though scheduling non-conference games against Big Ten teams would mean the Big Ten beating each other up more than necessary, it would not be a Big Ten-wide policy like increasing the number of conference games would be.
Instead, it'd be Michigan's option, along with Michigan State and Ohio State's. They'd need to decide if it's better to play a second game against their hated rival rather than schedule a marquee matchup against a non-conference foe. While the allure of Michigan playing an Arizona, Kansas, or Duke is strong, nothing means more to fans than rivalry games. And, if those marquee non-conference games are set in stone, rivalry games still are more valuable than hosting a Southland patsy like Nicholls State or Houston Baptist.
The logistics should not be a problem either. Unlike college football, for which non-conference schedules are planned years and sometimes decades in advance, college basketball non-conference schedules are not finalized until the later months of the summer prior to that regular season. With the conference schedules announced in mid-February, this would give Michigan and either Michigan State or Ohio State months to figure out the details of a second game, including a date that works best for both parties.
And here's the best part: there is precedent. In 1997, Michigan and Michigan State were slated to play each other only in Ann Arbor during the conference season, so the two schools decided to add a second, non-conference game that would be played in East Lansing to the schedule. The Wolverines won the non-conference meeting, 74-61.
So why wait? Michigan should do this next season. With both Michigan State and Ohio State each on the schedule only once, it may be difficult to add a second, non-conference game with each, but Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett should reach out to both Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith in attempt to add a second game with at least one of the Spartans or the Buckeyes.
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo was asked about this yesterday and stated that he had not yet talked to either Hollis or Michigan basketball coach John Beilein about scheduling a non-conference game between the Wolverines and the Spartans next season. Though Izzo was unsure whether this would be the best course of action, he made it clear to the media that "[he doesn't] like not playing [Michigan] twice ... ."
Because that's what college basketball rivals are supposed to do: play each other twice.
Once at home. Once on the road.
So let's ensure it happens next year: schedule MSU or OSU as a non-conference game.