With the move to 14 teams in the Big Ten Conference, scheduling for all sports became quite a bit more complicated. Especially with the stated goals of Jim Delany to have teams play each other more often, there has to be a better solution than the random crap-shoot of scheduling currently offered in sports like men’s and women’s basketball.
For now, basketball teams are only guaranteed to play each other team in conference once, and then five teams will be home-and-home series on the schedule. That’s less than 40% of opponents in conference that get to play a team both at home and on the road! Much like the long absences in some football rivalries like Iowa-Illinois that happened thanks to football scheduling during realignment, this is just not an optimal or fair solution.
In short: the unbalanced randomized schedule is totally unfair, and not all that pleasant for fans.
It’s been fun, not really, but it’s time for you to go.
Despite the higher amounts of politics and complications with the budget-making/breaking football schedules, the Big Ten still figured out how to fairly add a 9th conference game starting in 2016 so that no team goes more than 2 years without playing every conference opponent.
A similar philosophy, including the addition of conference games, will work well in basketball as well, while providing additional benefits to these sports with more games.
When making 9 or 10 road trips in conference play a season instead of 4, it is a bigger cost to travel halfway across the country than to stay more regional. In addition, closer road games means the players can actually get back to home campuses in a reasonable amount of time to limit missed classes and other requirements of being a student-athlete.
Thus, now that the conference spans from Minnesota and Nebraska to Rutgers and Maryland, the time is now to adopt the East-West divisions in all sports with 12-14 active teams, including men’s and women’s basketball. While maintaining local and regional rivalries more active and lively with two games a year, the costs on athletic departments and the imposition on players go down.
It’s a win-win.
Now, assuming that the conference stays at 14 teams, that means 7 teams per division and 12 intradivision games per season (2 against each of the other 6 opponents). With the current 18-game conference schedule, that would result in one of the 7 teams from the other division not being played each year. That’s not optimal, as even the current setup guarantees one matchup a year before the conference tournament.
In the spirit of Jim Delany’s “play each other more, not less,” that means it is also necessary to move to 19 or 20 conference games at the same time division play is instituted. That will allow for one game a season against each opponent in the other division, plus potentially one extra game against the other division (if 20 games is adopted). It’s easier to make a fair schedule with equal home and away games, plus the loss of another irrelevant non-conference game is not enough reason to stick with 19 instead of 20
After all, two fewer tune-up games or cupcakes on the schedule is a good thing for the conference as a whole (just like one fewer cupcake should be for Big Ten football teams in the future trying to make the New Year’s Six bowls). So let’s get into the specifics of how this change can most logically be done for the benefit of fans, the conference, and athletic department budgets of these universities (now that’s something these schools will pay attention to, the almighty dollar).
It’s an easier and more predictable scheduling process if the teams are paired across the divisions with a regular rival for a home-and-home series each season. The other 6 teams in the opposite division will be 3 homes games and 3 road games a year, with the locations of those games switching every year so that every player plays at each Big Ten road destination at least once every other season.
Plus, with Indiana and Purdue split across the East-West division line, this enables that important basketball rivalry to continue playing 2 games a season. The other rivals could shake out like this, based on recent competitive balance (indeed, these could be re-configured if needed every 5 to 10 years):
East vs. West Annual Rivals
- Indiana vs. Purdue
- Maryland vs. Minnesota
- Michigan vs. Iowa
- Michigan State vs. Illinois
- Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
- Penn State vs. Nebraska
- Rutgers vs. Northwestern
Thus, with 20 games each team gets 7 home-and-home series against the other division opponents and the protected rival, then 6 games against the remaining 6 teams. Predictable, fair, and as cost-effective as possible. Exactly what basketball and other sports need in the Big Ten.
Speaking of the division alignment, the entire reason we ended up with Legends and Leaders was competitive balance. In basketball, the competitive balance comes nicely with the geography, making this division alignment fit all the desired requirements. The conference win totals for the past few years (numbers from Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland come from their own leagues, which are largely similar in strength) show this balance:
1 year totals (2014-2015):
West Division – 66 wins (led by Wisconsin with 16, Purdue/Iowa with 12)
East Division – 60 wins (led by Maryland with 14, Michigan State with 12)
3 year totals (2012-2015):
West Division – 178 wins (led by Wisconsin with 40, Iowa with 30)
East Division – 191 wins (led by Michigan State with 37, Michigan with 35)
5 year totals (2010-2015):
West Division – 292 wins (led by Wisconsin with 65, Purdue with 49)
East Division – 315 wins (led by Ohio State with 63, Michigan State with 59)
10 year totals (2005-2015):
West Division – 574 wins, 48.8% (led by Wisconsin with 126, Purdue with 101)
East Division – 602 wins, 51.2% (led by Ohio State with 124, Michigan State with 116)
Each division has two mostly consistent top-level teams, the four teams listed in the 10 year totals above. The primary difference in the past 3 to 4 years is a drop in production from Purdue coupled with a few good years from Indiana and Michigan at the same time. The middle tier of the East Division has been slightly better, but that should not make for a huge advantage based on the numbers above. 51% is almost as balanced as you can get over time.
The only other question would be whether to seed the conference tournament based on division standings rather than overall conference standings. That process did not work very well for the SEC over the past two decades, so it’s likely not a good idea here. If the best three teams in the conference are in the same division, those teams should be rewarded accordingly. Perhaps save the top 2 seeds for the two division champions, if anything is to be done along these lines.
With Wisconsin at an all-time program high and Purdue and Iowa back on the rise, the time is better than ever to adopt East-West division play.
Get on it Jim Delany and the Big Ten! Let’s not keep the division fun contained to football, the one sport that may actually benefit from it the least (although the conference championship game is important, as evidenced by Ohio State’s vaulting into the top 4 of the College Football Playoff this season).
Basketball. Divisions. Get it done.