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Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Mason's Final Four run no help to elite mid-majors

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com is taking this week to look at scheduling decisions and their impact on the 2006-07 season.

George Mason's Final Four appearance increased coach Jim Larranaga's number of speaking engagements and related fees, but the Patriots' historic run to Indianapolis didn't do one thing for their fund for buying home nonconference games.

"We don't have money to play guarantee games," Larranaga said regarding the practice of paying an opponent to come to your home court.

Check that. Rather, the Patriots don't choose to spend their money in that way.

"We don't do it," Larranaga said. "We play home-and-home games. We don't take guarantee games and we don't give any."

Jim Larranaga
Jim Larranaga's Patriots have a very modest home schedule this season.

Normally that's true, but this season George Mason made an exception, playing at Duke on ESPN without a return.

"Duke is Duke, and that game is on national TV," Larranaga said. "We were looking to play someone like Duke, UCLA or Florida in a nationally televised game. We will benefit from the national exposure."

The Patriots' schedule, though, is a clear indication that they didn't benefit from the Final Four experience in terms of marquee home games. They play four nonconference home games -- return games against Wichita State and Mississippi State, a new series start-up against Florida International and a BracketBusters home game in February against an opponent to be determined.

The away stops include Cleveland State, Creighton, Radford, Duke, Holy Cross, Bucknell on a neutral court at the BB&T Classic in Washington, D.C., and Hampton. According to Hampton, it's the first time a program that appeared in the Final Four has appeared at Hampton since North Carolina (with Hampton native Ronald Curry) played there in 1998-99.

The Hampton and Radford games are home-and-home games, per Larranaga's and GMU's rules that they won't buy. He said FIU "was the only school in the nation that we could get to start at the Patriot Center. Everyone else we talked to wanted us to start on the road, but we already had enough road games."

Larranaga reiterated that the Duke game is a money game, but "it's also a TV game with great exposure."

Hofstra isn't even getting that kind of national attention, even though the Pride very well could be the preseason CAA favorites. Hofstra plays two nonconference home games this season. One is against St. Francis (N.Y.) on Dec. 12, -- and "that's a return from last year," Hofstra coach Tom Pecora said. The other is the BracketBusters game on Feb. 16 or 17. The rest of the slate is all on the road -- at Charlotte, Manhattan, Siena, Stony Brook, Syracuse and on neutral courts in the Great Alaska Shootout (the opener there is against Hawaii).

"The knock on us was that our schedule wasn't tough enough," Pecora said. "You can't compare us to the major conferences, where they play 18 home games and mid-majors play 10 or 11 or 12."

To make it even more difficult on the CAA, Drexel, another potential preseason favorite, is playing three home nonconference games against transitional D-I Florida Gulf Coast, Toledo and Fairleigh Dickinson. The road schedule includes Vermont, Penn, Rider, Saint Joseph's (in the Palestra), Villanova, Syracuse, Temple and a BracketBusters game.

UNC Wilmington, which last season shared the CAA regular-season crown with George Mason and won the conference tournament, actually has the best home schedule of any of the league's teams, with three straight against Colorado, East Carolina and Missouri State. That's not that flashy, either, but it's still better than what else is on the slate for their peers.

Doug Elgin
Doug Elgin still sees a significant scheduling gap between big-time programs and the Valley.

As for the Missouri Valley, the CAA's mentor in penetrating college basketball's conscience, it didn't deliver on home nonconference games, either.

The MVC has only four home nonconference games against one of the six major conferences, and only one of them is really unique. DePaul is playing at Bradley (a regional matchup). Iowa State is playing at Northern Iowa (which happens every other year). Iowa is at Drake (not an uncommon meeting, either).

Only the matchup of Miami (Fla.) at Evansville stands out, but that one is in a tournament and Hurricanes coach Frank Haith wanted to play in an exempted event.

"It's not happening," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. "We're not getting those teams on our courts. I'm not sure what you can do financially. It seems like there is a determined effort not to go to arenas like ours."

The elimination of the two-in-four rule for exempted tournaments did create more spots in those events for teams in the Valley and the CAA, but it didn't have any impact on straight home-and-home nonconference series.

"It's not balanced in Division I," Elgin said. "It's not right."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.