By the time Winthrop had built a 28-2 first half lead over Hiwassee College on Sunday afternoon, some of the few hundred fans in attendance may have wondered why the Eagles were playing the Tigers.
Winthrop is now 20-0 against non-Division I opposition under coach Pat Kelsey. Austin Awad and Adam Pickett led the Eagles with 18 points each and the team hit a school-record 24 3-pointers in a 109-66 win. The game was a breezy return to competition for the Eagles, who just finished semester-ending exams. Every Winthrop player got in the game, and Kelsey, who normally paces in front of the team’s bench for entire games, even sat down for lengthy portions of the action.
Maybe the couple hundred fans also wondered why Winthrop doesn’t schedule better non-conference opponents to play in Rock Hill? And what the Eagles get out of games against non-Division I opponents, other than a blowout win?
The first question is much harder to answer than the second.
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‘Who did you play? Who did you beat?’
In the hierarchy of men’s college basketball, Winthrop is in the lower tier of the upper echelon, NCAA Division I, which is followed by Division II and III. NAIA is in there just below Division III. And there are other nebulous governing bodies like the National Christian Colleges Athletic Association and the United States College Athletic Association.
After NCAA Division III Pfeiffer lost to Winthrop in Rock Hill earlier this season, Pfeiffer coach Pete Schoch called the opportunity for his program to play a Division I school like Winthrop, “a total win-win” for financial and competitive reasons.
But it’s not a win-win for the Division I school, especially in terms of beefing up a potential NCAA Tournament resume. Beating non-Division I teams does nothing for a Division I team’s NCAA Tournament hopes, or seeding (if they reach the Big Dance). The wins aren’t considered by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and that’s put games against non-DI opponents under increased scrutiny by basketball-centric conferences like Winthrop’s Big South.
“We talk a lot about our non-conference scheduling, every aspect of it,” said Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander. “I would like to see us play less non-Division I games. While they don’t count against you, they don’t help you either.”
The key to a low or mid-major team improving its seed in the NCAA Tournament is to win non-conference Division I games. Leagues like the Big South want their NCAA Tournament entry to get the best seed possible, which increases the odds of advancing in the tournament and raking in the hefty pay day and increased exposure that accompanies March Madness wins. Winthrop’s 11 seed in 2007 and its 13 seed in 2017 are examples of when this line of thinking succeeded.
“From a conference standpoint, I’d like to see us have more opportunities to play a good representative Division I schedule,” said Kallander. “Now that means different things to different people. I tell the coaches, if you think you’re contending for a conference championship, you should build up your schedule. If you’re gonna win the league and go before the selection committee, they’re gonna say, ‘who did you play, who did you beat?’”
So why play non-Division I opponents? In some cases, low and mid-major Division I schools have little choice.
“I don’t think people are looking at how hard it is to schedule, how hard it is to get home games, how hard it is to get home games when your students are there,” said Edward Joyner Jr., Hampton University’s coach and a Charlotte native.
There are several forces engaged in tug of war that created scheduling difficulties for low and mid-major Division I programs.
Firstly, every Division I basketball coach wants to make the NCAA Tournament. But he also sees peer coaches, friends in some cases, fired at the end of each season. So that possibility is in the back of his mind when making the schedule, and at most schools it’s predominately the coaches that make their team’s schedules, though athletic directors have varying levels of input.
Second, college basketball schedules are pieced together each season, so schools can’t nail down games five to 10 years into the future like college football programs do. Short-term thinking dominates.
“And so,” said Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin, “you get in this back and forth of how do I make a competitive schedule, and how do I not schedule myself out of a job if I’m not careful.”
While Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey isn’t in danger of getting fired, there are low/mid-major coaches that wouldn’t want to play a potentially dangerous, traditionally strong program like Winthrop, let alone give the Eagles a home court advantage. And thus, the Eagles’ scheduling stasis occurs.
Winthrop’s 2018-19 non-conference home schedule is a great example of this conundrum. The Eagles got a very good home-and-home series set up with East Tennessee State just a few months before this season started. ETSU came to Rock Hill this season for the Eagles’ Homecoming game, and Winthrop will return the favor next season in Johnson City.
“I think it’s a great series,” said ETSU coach Steve Forbes, whose program has been to 10 NCAA Tournaments, just like Winthrop.
But the rest of Winthrop’s non-conference home schedule -- non-Division I’s Pfeiffer, Warren Wilson and Hiwassee, along with Maryland-Eastern Shore and Prairie View A&M -- hardly raise a fan’s pulse. Winthrop paid four of those five teams, handing out $40,000 to Maryland-Eastern Shore, and a combined $9,500 to Pfeiffer, Warren Wilson and Hiwassee.
Forbes said he holds out on completing his schedule into August and September, as he waits for other mid-majors’ desperation for games to peak.
“Kentucky plays Duke, you know, Kansas plays Michigan State. Those guys all play each other,” Forbes said. “We should be doing the same.”
When teams from the top seven leagues schedule a non-conference home game against a low/mid-major opponent, it’s called a “buy game.” The bigger school usually hands over a hefty check to the smaller school to come play (and get pounded).
Most low/mid-majors annually schedule a handful of buy games to help the school’s finances. Dates at Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Davidson and Florida State netted Winthrop four buy game paychecks this season. The Seminoles are paying Winthrop $95,000 to come to Tallahassee and play on Jan. 1, while even Davidson paid the Eagles $85,000 to make the short trek up Interstate 77 for a Dec. 4 non-conference game.
Buy games equal big checks, but also big blowouts.
For low/mid-majors, playing non-Division I opponents helps offset buy games in the win-loss column. After taking a couple of beatings from Kentucky and Vanderbilt, why not dole out a few hammerings yourself?
“For a competitive situation, it’s a good mixture for us,” USC Upstate coach Dave Dickerson said back in October. “We have to go out and bring money in for the university to the athletic department, so we have to go out and play Power 5 conferences and some of those games can be very difficult. So now, to have some balance, we need some of those games. It’s just a cost of doing living.”
Every team in the Big South Conference and equivalent leagues plays buy games that usually end with a heavy defeat. That makes it an even bigger deal when Winthrop wins one of those games, as the Eagles did in 2013 (Auburn), 2014 (Clemson) and 2016 (Illinois). They took home the check, and the upset win.
Not surprisingly, Clemson last played at Winthrop Coliseum in 1985. And the Tigers haven’t played Winthrop at all since the Eagles beat them on their home floor in 2014.
There is an even bigger issue that is exerting downward pressure on the lower tier Division I programs, like Winthrop.
Ask ESPN college basketball analyst Mark Adams about the topic and the volume of his voice steadily increases. He makes his view on Division I teams playing games against non-Division I opponents very clear.
“Am I in favor of non-D1 games?” he asked during an interview with a reporter. “The emphatic answer to that, and quote me on this, is hell no.”
Adams is a former college basketball coach at Idaho State, Washington State and Central Connecticut. He’s seen the scheduling struggles of low/mid-major programs increase over the years and after researching the topic extensively, has some ideas and evidence about the causes. He found that:
Power 5 teams played 88 percent of their non-conference games in 2017-18 at home or on a neutral court.
The top leagues are increasing the number of conference games they play, to 20 in several cases, which decreases the number of non-conference games, and, accordingly, buy game opportunities for low/mid-major schools.
Since 1985, No. 14 seeds won their first round NCAA Tournament game 15 percent of the time. No. 11 seeded teams won 37.5 percent of their first round games in the same time period. By improving the seed three spots, the chances of winning an NCAA Tournament game -- and reaping financial and exposure benefits -- rose notably.
Adams calls the bigger schools’ grip on scheduling “the Power 5 scheduling cartel,” and it’s really seven leagues, including the Big East and American Athletic Conference.
Forbes said that almost no team from those seven leagues will play non-conference road games against low/mid-majors. That’s hampering the other 25 leagues’ already slim chances of getting multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament, because their chances at quality wins is lowered.
And the NCAA’s new metric, called NET and developed to replace the RPI, isn’t helping low/mid-majors’ cause much either. It gives more weight to neutral court wins than road wins. There is almost no incentive for bigger schools to travel to smaller ones.
“We’re getting scheduled out of the tournament, because we’re not gonna have enough Quadrant 1 wins to even have a chance,” said Forbes.
Compare how the different Power 7 conferences compare in non-conference scheduling, here (or here, if you’re on a mobile device):
Far from just griping, Adams is actively cooking up solutions to mid-major scheduling stasis.
He’s consulting with Conference USA and helped that league develop an unusual conference scheduling format that should boost the league’s seeding come NCAA tourney time. With four games left in the conference season, Conference USA will split into three groups based on the league standings. The top teams play each other in the final four games, the middle teams play each other and the lower teams play each other. That enables the top-tier Conference USA teams to add some potential quality wins to their NCAA Tournament resume just before March.
There are some other ideas Adams is working on, including a scheduling alliance that will involve Forbes’ ETSU program. Details are still to be completely ironed out, but it will set up quality non-conference games between mid-major programs in the coming years.
There is also increasing interest in conference challenges, akin to what the ACC and Big Ten started years ago. Adams cited the Summit/WAC Challenge, a competition between the two mid-major conferences that enables each league’s top teams to put one more decent Division I non-conference opponent on the schedule. Forbes said he has advocated a similar idea between the Big South and the Southern Conference, though so far the idea hasn’t come to life.
While Forbes is in favor of playing as many Division I opponents as he can, not every coach feels the same. And Forbes thinks that’s why more athletic directors should take a bigger role in scheduling. When coaches control scheduling, their own interests -- for starters, keeping a job -- tend to come first.
Adams said he backs the idea of conferences banning regular season games against non-Division I opponents. It doesn’t appear that any Division I conferences have made that move yet, though many leagues already have caps on the number of non-DI opponents their schools can play.
There is no evidence to suggest the Power 7 schools will suddenly, and charitably, reverse their course. And untangling an issue with as many stakeholders as this one will be difficult and take years. It’ll require creativity and an unwillingness to accept a Division I college basketball future entirely dominated by the top seven conferences. It’s up to the low and mid-major schools to fix the scheduling crunch themselves.
“Here’s my question to every conference: how is the status quo working for you?” Adams said. “That’s the question they have to answer.”