Last Friday gave us two sides of Minnesota men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith.
First, the measured, analytical Tubby broke down the strengths of North Dakota State, the next day’s opponent. A few minutes later, Smith’s tone changed considerably as he explained and defended something he’s been hammered for — the Gophers’ bunny-laden non-conference schedule, which includes the likes of … North Dakota State.
Only two of the 12 non-Big Ten opponents figured to give the young Gophers a tussle — highly ranked Louisville, and Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Ivy League champion Cornell is the only other NCAA Tournament team from last year on a docket that included Bowling Green, North and South Dakota States, High Point (Smith’s alma mater) and Division II Concordia.
Scheduling criticisms irk Smith
This criticism irritated Smith so much that he dismissed it with uncharacteristic contempt last month at a pre-season media gathering. That people even care about the non-conference slate at least shows improvement in the Gophers’ profile around town, a profile raised by last year’s unexpected 20-14 finish and NIT bid in Smith’s first season after leaving Kentucky.
Last year’s 10-2 non-conference start had some people around the program convinced the Gophers had a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Then the Big Ten season hit the Gophers like a two-by-four. The Gophers went 8-10 and never won a signature road game in conference play. Beating imperiled Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament came too late to do much good with the NCAA selection committee.
So why didn’t Smith add tougher non-conference foes this time?
Smith said the young Gophers, with three freshmen counted on for key roles, couldn’t handle it. “We already have three tough games,” Smith said. “We don’t need any more tough games to get ready.”
And even if they could, Smith said the chances of director of basketball operations Joe Esposito, who handles the schedule, finding any name opponents to play in The Barn were close to slim.
“Teams don’t go anywhere,” Smith said. “Duke’s not going to go anywhere. North Carolina’s not going to come in here. Texas … Not a Big 8 team, not a Pac-10 team, not a major conference team. I wouldn’t either. You want to play at home.
“You’re not going to get the top-echelon teams to come in here. It doesn’t happen anymore, not unless you give them a home-and-home, and it’s been hard to get that.”
That’s probably the biggest challenge facing Esposito and Gopher women’s assistant coaches Barb Smith and Ted Riverso, who handle scheduling for Pam Borton’s team. Esposito, even with more than 300 Division I teams to choose from, couldn’t entice one to fill the last spot in last month’s NABC Classic, which is how Concordia got in. The task for the women is a little easier, though the Gophers had to go to California and Colorado to fill out their schedule.
“It’s the worst job,” Borton said. “You have to go to the head coach and say, ‘Do you want to play so-and-so?’ “
Schedules are put together a year or more in advance. Borton’s ideal non-conference schedule features five major-conference opponents, and this season’s list included Stanford, Santa Clara, Boston College, Massachusetts and Iowa State. (The Gophers lost another when Yale surprised North Carolina State in the Subway Classic at Williams Arena.)
That leaves six games the Gophers should win. Borton prefers the Gophers not load up on easy opponents with high Ratings Percentage Indexes (RPI), which pad the record but won’t impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Instead, she looks for good teams from lesser conferences, like the Summit League’s South Dakota State, which last season finished 22-6 with an RPI of 60. As of Monday, the Jackrabbits rated better in RPI (13) than the Gophers (37). The teams play here on Dec. 9.
Borton faces schedule balancing act
“You can go 11-0 and have a disappointing Big Ten season because you’re not challenged,” Borton said. “But you can’t schedule 11 heavy hitters and then play in the Big Ten. And you can’t go 5-5 in non-conference, because that means you’ve pretty much got to go undefeated in conference.”
Smith, however, said he can’t be that choosy.
Years ago, a guarantee of $35,000 to $50,000 to the visiting school landed you a home game with a mid-major or a Division II team. Smith, the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said he’s heard of some instances where schools paid up to $100,000.
“You think High Point wants to come here and play us?” Smith said. “Heck, no. He’s trying to win games. Unless you give them a financial guarantee. Then they’ll come in here.”
Now, Smith said, even big paydays aren’t always enough.
“I knew this would happen,” Smith said. “When they expanded your conference schedule, I don’t know what they expected. (The NCAA) did it because they wanted more home games, and the schools wanted more money. So with (athletics directors), that’s exactly what it’s about. That’s what the whole fact is, whether at Kentucky or wherever.
“Unless you had an existing rivalry with a team outside your conference, they’re not going to play. It just doesn’t happen anymore. And I think people understand that … It’s all about TV now. When you see a matchup now, TV put it together.”
Almost all of Smith’s non-conference schedule for next season is set. He still hopes to arrange a home-and-home with Tulsa, another of his former schools, or someone from the Missouri Valley Conference. The closest MVC schools to Dinkytown are Drake and Northern Iowa, and travel costs are a consideration, Smith said.
“It’s probably the toughest thing in basketball, and in sports today, especially at the college level — the schedule,” he said. “When you take over a job, there’s one thing you better have control over — the schedule. You show me a coach that’s on his way out, and I’ll show you a schedule that’s not put in by a coach.”