As many college basketball conferences have moved to 18- and even 20-game conference schedules, the difficulty of finding good non-league opponents has been a theme for mid-major programs like Valparaiso.
For schools that don’t want to go on the road or need a specific number of home games for revenue purposes, the choice is often between low-level Division I opponents and non-Division I schools. Valparaiso opened the regular season against Division III Concordia University Chicago and faces Division II Purdue Northwest on Saturday.
Season-ticket holders who pay for what they expect to be Division I basketball understandably may be disappointed when they see Division II teams on the schedule. The decision of whom to play represents one of Valparaiso’s most difficult issues when it prepares for basketball season.
“No. 1, it’s hard to get guys to come to our gym,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said before the Concordia game. “Coaches are real protective of their schedules. We’re also required to have a certain amount of home games here every year. If it’s really hard to get Division I teams to come and at the same time have a requirement to have a certain amount of home games, you can see where that kind of a problem can come in.”
Playing low-major Division I teams typically provides better competition than Division II teams, but it can have a negative impact on team ratings such as the NCAA Evaluation Tool. The NET replaced the Ratings Percentage Index for the 2018-19 season as the NCAA tournament selection committee’s ranking of choice, and strength of schedule plays a significant role in both metrics.
Games against non Division I teams didn’t used to count toward postseason selection, and they still aren’t counted by rating systems like the NET. That has twisted incentives, however, as teams can avoid hurting their ratings by playing games that effectively didn't happen instead of facing low-major teams like the SIU-Edwardsville and UC Riverside squads Valparaiso faced this season.
According to VU director of athletics Mark LaBarbera, that has changed. Bradley's Chris Reynolds, a fellow Missouri Valley Conference athletic director and a member of the NCAA's selection committee, told LaBarbera the committee now disapproves of scheduling non-Division I teams. What hasn’t been solved, however, is the hesitancy from coaches to play on the road, as Lottich mentioned.
“I think most coaches feel like if they can get, every year, if they can get to or close to 20 wins, they’re in a good position to keep their job,” LaBarbera said. “So as you try to schedule games, if everybody’s thinking that way, then it just becomes that much harder to get people to agree to schedule games."
"I’ve had conversations with my fellow ADs, nonconference ADs, where we say, ‘Hey, this game makes a lot of sense. We should play it.’ But then we get the coaches involved, and they don’t want anything to do with it, because they see it as too hard.”
LaBarbera said Valparaiso has previously tried to match each difficult road game — such as trips to West Virginia and Texas A&M this year — with a home non-Division I matchup. He said that should change in the future considering the selection committee's stance, but Valparaiso will have one less option next season. The yearly Mountain West-MVC series won't continue in 2019-20, and the Mountain West announced a new partnership with the Atlantic 10 starting the season after.
High-major leagues have opted out of scheduling MVC teams, as well. LaBarbera noted that while Duke and North Carolina agreed to play Valparaiso at the United Center in Chicago in 2004 and 2008, respectively, those teams now participate in events such as the Champions Classic or CBS Sports Classic against opponents like Kansas or Kentucky.
Joining the MVC has built in a number of challenging games, but it also removed some nonconference opportunities on top of those being taken off the table by high-major programs. The result? Valparaiso trekked all over the country for games in South Carolina, Las Vegas and Texas, yielding a travel schedule LaBarbera and Lottich have noted wore on the team.
“(The MVC)’s given us a better home schedule because of the conference games, but a number of those schools were willing to play us out of conference,” LaBarbera said. “We’re trying to build a better schedule that would make us look like an at-large if we had a good team.”
At 6-6, Valparaiso has likely already ruled itself out of at-large consideration. Still, the Crusaders don’t want to be left out in years when they have a good enough team because they didn’t play anyone.
That might require more creative scheduling among mid-majors overall, whom LaBarbera feels should play each other more often. The hope is that there’s enough quality at the top of leagues like the MVC, Mountain West and West Coast Conference that they can return to their days as consistent multi-bid leagues.
“I think we as the mid-majors need to get ourselves organized and just do a better job of helping each other,” LaBarbera said. “What we have to really come to grips with as the mid-majors is, since (high-majors) aren’t going to help us, that we need to get together and we just need to help ourselves.”