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Fixing the Big Ten Basketball Schedule

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The Big Ten schedule is unbalanced, so with the help of MGoBlog I balanced it.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The genesis of this post comes from a post on MGoBlog this morning, which had an interesting way to solve the current mess that is Big Ten basketball scheduling:

Basketball: making 14 an asset

Wisconsin ran away with the Big Ten title this year. Their last seven games included matchups against 9-9 Illinois, 4-14 Penn State, and two against 6-12 Minnesota. What if their stretch run was nothing but the other three games-Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State-and so was everyone else's? And what if you could never point to anyone's schedule and say that's why team X won?

This is possible, even in a 14-team conference if you're willing to rethink a conference schedule. You can have a true, fair, thrilling championship in 19 conference games:

  • FIRST 13: round-robin amongst all teams
  • LAST 6: split the league into top and bottom halves, have second round-robin within.

Everyone in each half plays the same schedule. The last three weeks of the regular season are an all-out brawl for a banner that means something it might not in a world where getting the wrong teams twice could knock you down a peg.

The downsides are real but not insurmountable. You would not know the last six games of your schedule until a few days before. With home sites that's not a huge problem. There will be demand for those games. And teams right around the cutoff could find their path to a bid get harder as teams just above it draw a bunch of tough games and teams below it lose the opportunity to knock off a Wisconsin. That effect is probably marginal (on average it's turning three games into somewhat harder or easier ones).

I love it. There is an easy away around the problem of it not being a true round robin because it wouldn't be a home-and-home, and that is facing the teams on the road you played the year before and vice versa. If you're really worried about home court and how it could affect things remember: a loss to a "bottom 7" means you dropped a game you probably should win if you want to win the conference anyway, home or away. Wisconsin should have beaten Rutgers in Madison, New Jersey, on a neutral floor, on an aircraft carrier, or anywhere. They didn't, so it should still affect the final race.

For grins & giggles, let's look at how things would have shuffled out, taking into account only the first time each team played another:

Championship Group

Wisconsin: 11-2

Maryland: 10-3

Michigan State: 9-4

Purdue: 9-4

Iowa: 9-4

Ohio State: 9-4

Indiana: 8-5

Consolation Group

Michigan: 6-7

Illinois: 5-8

Northwestern 5-8

Nebraska 5-8

Minnesota 3-10

Penn State 2-11

Rutgers 2-11

This works out quite nicely. The "Championship Group" all have a legitimate shot to claim the crown and were the seven NCAA teams anyway. Michigan and Illinois would still have semi-realistic chances to dominate the consolation group and play in to a bid, or they would fall apart to the ravenous nature of the bottom feeders.

How could it work out? Well, in the six remaining games they would be at the opposite venue of the first matchup. Let's look at the Championship Group only:

Wisconsin

They would host Maryland in a rematch of one of their two losses. Things get tricky in that they would have to go to Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan State, who all did well at home. The Badgers would host Ohio State after destroying them in Columbus and would go to Iowa. The only "second" outcome we saw was their win at Iowa, which came after winning in Iowa City. Therefore, there is something to be said about this method when they played five of the other six NCAA teams once.

Maryland

It would be interesting to see how Maryland did at home after losing by 24 at Ohio State. They would get Indiana at home after losing in Bloomington by 19 (and they won the real rematch by 2). Purdue would also come to College Park, but the Terrapins were the lone Big Ten team to win in West Lafayette this season. Since the first Michigan State game happened in East Lansing the hypothetical rematch would also be in College park, and Maryland won that one 75-59. The Terps would also host Iowa, as they played five of the other six on the road in their first games. The one road trip: to Wisconsin. Getting five home games is a bit unfair in the last six, but remember: under this system they have already played those same five very good teams on the road, so it evens out.

Michigan State

The Spartans have a tough road here. They have to go to Maryland (where they lost the real second matchup) after losing in double overtime in East Lansing. They would host Iowa after losing in Iowa City, as well as Wisconsin after a loss in Madison. They would have to go to Columbus, West Lafayette, and Bloomington after winning all three in East Lansing. Only one of these games actually happened, and that was the win over Indiana. That makes for four road games in six.

Purdue

Purdue fans wanted a home game against Wisconsin after losing in Madison and this scenario makes it happen. Unfortunately, the second matchup was a neutral floor one in Chicago and the Badgers rolled in the second half there. The trade-off is a trip to Maryland. Purdue would get Michigan State mat home, but still have to go to Iowa, Ohio State, and Indiana. At least we would get to have Jon Octeus destroy Collin Hartman again. Purdue lost in Columbus and did not play Iowa again after a close win at Purdue. The Boilers might have the toughest road to the title here with only two home games, and those against Michigan State at Wisconsin.

Iowa

The Hawkeyes had two early rematches in the Big Ten season. Under this scenario they would keep the home win over Ohio State and road loss at Wisconsin, but would still have to go to Columbus (where they won) and host Wisconsin (which they also lost). The Hawkeyes must go to East Lansing, but get to host Purdue. They also go to Maryland and host Indiana after winning both of those first games.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes would get an even split. They would have to go to Iowa (which they lost in reality), but they would host Indiana and Purdue (which they won both). They would have to go to Maryland after winning by 24 in Columbus. Michigan State would come to Columbus after the Spartans won on a buzzer-beater in East Lansing, but the Buckeyes would have to go to Madison after losing by 24 in Columbus.

Indiana

Arguably, Indiana had the toughest regular season schedule this year. Of the top seven teams here they played Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Maryland twice each. They went 2-6 in such games, too. In the hypothetical round robin they would get Michigan State at home, go to Ohio State, host Purdue, and go to Maryland. The Hoosiers lost all four of these. As for their other two games they would have to go to Iowa (after losing in Bloomington) and they would host Wisconsin after losing in Madison. Against the top seven Indiana was a dismal 2-8, so it doesn't look good.

Now, would this be more fun? In this scenario Indiana trails by three games with six to play as the worst team with a chance to win the conference. Wisconsin would still be favored, but would have four road games in the last six. Nothing would be certain at all except for excitement.