Pac-12 men’s basketball teams will play two extra conference games starting in 2020-21, joining the Big Ten and ACC with a 20-game slate in an effort to boost schedule strength and visibility.
The conference’s head coaches recommended the expanded schedule after voting during a conference call last month, while school sports administrators voted formally to implement it Thursday during conference meetings in Scottsdale.
Fans could benefit, too.
While it remains undetermined how the conference will work in the two extra games, they will likely be played during prime weekend windows in November and early December while also ensuring that marquee matchups such as Arizona-UCLA and Washington-Oregon are played twice every season.
“It will bring more relevance to our conference schedule and make sure more teams are played twice,” said Jamie Zaninovich, who oversees men’s basketball as the Pac-12’s deputy commissioner and COO. “We have some really good coaches who are big-picture oriented … coaches who are aligned and trying to help turn around what has been a couple of tough seasons.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller and basketball operations director Ryan Reynolds have said it has become harder to schedule marquee nonconference series against high-major programs because longer conference schedules elsewhere and proliferation of multi-team events (MTEs) have left prospective opponents reluctant to also visit McKale Center, especially if they are far way.
That problem has harmed nonconference schedule strengths, while the Pac-12’s current 18-game format has also arguably limited its visibility and teams’ individual NCAA Tournament hopes by taking away potentially key games. Adding two more conference games could solve both problems.
Coaches began discussing an expanded conference schedule in earnest during spring 2018 meetings after USC appeared to just miss the 2018 NCAA Tournament field with a schedule that did not include home games against ASU or UA. Had the Trojans beaten either Arizona team at home, some coaches reasoned, the Trojans probably would have made the tournament field.
Zaninovich and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott also indicated the conference is considering a nonconference scheduling standard that might include a minimum average opponent NET or power rating.
“No one is just kind of sitting there saying we don’t have to tweak or change anything and just hope things improve,” Scott said Wednesday, during an informal media gathering at conference meetings. “We’re giving very serious consideration to a 20-game schedule and we’re looking at some models for more conference involvement in nonconference scheduling decisions.”
The Pac-12 is expected to iron out an exact plan next spring on how and when the extra two games will be implemented. Zaninovich said the conference has identified three weekends in November and December that don’t typically conflict with MTEs and have students on campus.
The possibilities include:
- Staying with the current schedule rotation, but putting two of the four “skips” back on the schedule — possibly in a manner that prioritizes matchups of equal teams or marquee value.
Since Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12, each conference team has played seven teams twice and four teams once, with one geographic pair being skipped each season on the road and another pair being skipped at home. For 2019-20, Arizona won’t make the Utah and Colorado trip, and won’t host Stanford and Cal.
Those skips were scheduled to be flipped in 2020-21 but, with a 20-game schedule, it is possible the Pac-12 could have UA host Utah and play at Cal, or whatever two matchups of those four it deems are best to keep for strategic and television reasons.
- Ripping up the traditional two-game weekends with travel partners.
It is possible the Pac-12 could reformat the entire conference schedule every year based on the matchups it wants to create, and abandoning the “travel partner” format (in which geographic rivals such as UA and ASU play the same two teams from a different region every weekend).
However, the conference’s spread-out footprint still suggests two-game road trips can save money and class time.
The Pac-12 could also mix in some traditional two-game weekends with a number of single-game matchups.
“There’s all sorts of models,” Zaninovich said. “We’ve discussed a ‘best-plays-best’ scenario and whether we could do some sort of random rotation.”
- Early games could be weaved into the football schedule.
Zaninovich said coaches expressed a preference to have the extra conference games played on weekends in November and early December, when students are more likely to attend.
“We like that from a brand relevance standpoint,” Zaninovich said.
It is possible some of them might be played on the same weekend as a home football game, likely on Sunday so as to avoid football television windows.
“We had a little conversation about that,” Zaninovich said. “If two schools’ football teams were playing and we could schedule in their basketball teams to play the next day, that would be a pretty cool thing.”
- The two extra games could be crammed into teams’ semi-bye week, when teams only play their geographic rival.
That choice would allow the Pac-12 to keep its entire conference season after Christmas but Zaninovich said it isn’t popular among coaches and wouldn’t allow the league to gain visibility earlier in the season.
- Of teams’ remaining nonconference games, a minimum average opponent power or NET rating might be applied similar to the rolling average that has been applied to SEC nonconference schedules.
As of now, Zaninovich said, conference teams have been advised to aim for a nonconference schedule in which they expect to win 75 percent of the time — which encourages teams to schedule aggressively but, for weaker or rebuilding teams, not too aggressively.
With 20 conference games, teams would have only seven games left to schedule for single nonconference games. They are not expected to cut MTE play because those events typically allow teams to play four games that count only for three games toward the NCAA scheduling maximum.
UA is scheduled to play in the Wooden Legacy MTE next season and in the NIT Season Tipoff at Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2020-21, with events in Las Vegas and Maui possible in successive seasons.
Reynolds said it isn’t known yet whether the Wildcats would make room for two more Pac-12 games by cutting two one-time guarantee games (typically played against mid-major opponents) or by contracting fewer multi-year series against high major teams.