- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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The NCAA tournament at-large bid campaigns start long before the first tip in November.
Those campaigns take form in the art of nonconference scheduling, an often-complicated process that can go back years or not be finalized until mere months before the season.
Some of the nonconference games have been known for years, as teams jockey for exclusive positions in some of the most celebrated tournaments.
A few are longstanding series that guarantee teams a marquee opponent at home and on the road every other season.
Some are part of a made-for-TV challenge series between two conferences, banking on what matchups will rate well and benefit both programs.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has been outspoken about his new scheduling philosophy, which favors neutral-site battles in huge arenas. But Kentucky is Kentucky and can dictate its scheduling needs.
Duke has been playing this game for years. Except for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Blue Devils play whom they want when they want and where they want to fit their needs. Duke has long looked for quality nonconference games on neutral courts that are in potential NCAA tournament sites. Mike Krzyzewski will play guarantee games against quality teams that might mimic a first- or second-round opponent.
Calipari is doing away with most true home-and-home series, save North Carolina (which will resume in 2013-14). He can't control the SEC/Big East Challenge, which is now a home-and-home situation. And like Duke, Kansas and Michigan State, Kentucky is entering year two of a three-year deal to play in the Champions Classic, which shifts to the Georgia Dome this November from Madison Square Garden before going to the United Center in Chicago in 2013.
But Calipari wants to play in football stadiums at least once during each nonconference season to prep for an Elite Eight or Final Four setting. He said he's convinced that part of the problem in the loss to Connecticut in the 2011 national semifinal in Houston was that game's being the first time that season the Wildcats played in a dome.
"We would have won that national championship,'' Calipari said. "I'm convinced of it. Would you rather I play games home-and-home or get this team ready for the NCAA tournament? You can't tell me to do both. It's one or the other.''
Kentucky and Duke are plotting title runs every season, with schedules that are as much about prepping to win a title as attempting to earn a No. 1 seed.
But most schools, even those in the high-profile conferences, have to spend countless hours trying to mix and match games that work.
Even Kansas has had quite a time trying to fill its home-and-home slate, finally locking in with an old rival in Colorado for a series.
Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, who is the 2013 chair of the men's basketball selection committee, said that 10-member group is always looking for teams that play challenging nonconference schedules.
But each team is judged independently, so a game against a nonconference opponent that you can control is judged just like a conference game that is out of your control. Each school can be at the mercy of how a team performs in a game they scheduled and one they did not.
"You define your schedule and you can increase or decrease the margin of error,'' Bobinski said. "Maybe that's one tough game, or two, that's fine, that's your choice. The entire field is a list of potential tournament teams, and we look at that and judge how serious you are.
"One of the differentiators is the willingness to go play true road games. That clearly causes your schedule to be different. That clearly sets you apart. Some will do it and some won't.''
To be fair, some simply cannot get teams to come to their home court. Utah State's Stew Morrill has been much maligned for his scheduling and his denial of playing one-way guaranteed games just to get a good name on the slate. He finally relented and went to Georgetown two years ago. But getting significant teams to play in Logan, Utah, is nearly impossible.
"Neutrals are good for the game and provide matchups that may not happen,'' Bobinski said. "As long as we get them on the court, that gives the committee a chance to see how the team stacks up and evaluate them.''
We would have won that national championship. I'm convinced of it. Would you rather I play games home-and-home or get this team ready for the NCAA tournament? You can't tell me to do both. It's one or the other.
”-- Kentucky coach John Calipari
Some schools have recognized that they're in a similar lot. Cincinnati and New Mexico did this spring, seeing the need that they each had to play a quality game. They signed up for a home-and-home series.
"Getting a home-and-home against a Top 25 team is hard to do,'' said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. "They're a lot like us. Teams are not beating down the door to play them because of recent success. So you search for someone in the same boat as you.''
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has a formula that he's stuck to lately. The Irish are always in some sort of tournament and now have the Crossroads Classic with Purdue, Indiana and Butler for the next three years. They also have the SEC/Big East Challenge each season.
"Because of the power of our league, we always feel we can play our way in through the league,'' Brey said. "We play four power games, and we're always in an exempt tournament.''
The Big East provides an interesting cross section because there are so many different agendas and opportunities from top to bottom. Losing Syracuse and Pitt and adding SMU, Houston, Central Florida, Temple and Memphis will offer even more diversity of scheduling since each school has various levels of interest. Memphis can pay for guarantee games and is an attractive home-and-home school with some natural rivals. Temple can play schools regionally and has the Philadelphia draw for recruiting. But the other three may struggle and have in getting quality nonconference games.
South Florida coach Stan Heath said scheduling is a lot harder than anyone imagines. He needs the SEC/Big East Challenge to lock in what he hopes is a quality game and is searching for another similar opponent in a high-profile conference. He said he's trying to get a home-and-home with Oklahoma State out of the Big 12. He's also looking for a home-and-home with Detroit out of the Horizon, something most Big East schools wouldn't have to do.
Programs like Marquette and Syracuse wouldn't return a game to Detroit but could get the Titans to come to them without a return because of the ability to pay more in guaranteed money and the chance it can get a better television window.
Marshall coach Tom Herrion has been scouting the power rankings to look for quality opponents. The Thundering Herd are fortunate that they get a high-profile game on a neutral court every season against West Virginia, formerly of the Big East and now of the Big 12. A year ago, Marshall got Cincinnati in a game and won on the road.
"The game that helped us a lot last year was Syracuse, even in a loss, because we played it relatively close,'' Herrion said. "That was a huge game for us in helping us get a good RPI even in a loss. I think the key is also playing the teams from the non-BCS leagues who are good, like playing Belmont twice and Akron and Ohio. Those games will help you win or lose.''
Gonzaga and Xavier don't have to worry about playing quality games since they've figured out the system of maximizing the nonconference with tournaments, neutral-site games and home-and-homes. Both programs are perceived as quality opponents, regardless of location. And schools are now willing to go to a place like Spokane to play Gonzaga at home, as Michigan State and Wake Forest have done.
"We try to get two or three series at home and two to three that start on the road, but it doesn't always work out that way,'' Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "We're always in an ESPN exempt tournament. It's not always a perfect formula, but we try to stick to the script. We try to have a nice balance of home and road. We're not afraid to go on the road and challenge ourselves in tough venues.''
Gonzaga and Xavier have been helped by improving conference games. The rise of Saint Mary's and the addition of BYU has helped the Zags. Temple's consistent presence was always a plus for Xavier, and now with Saint Louis a player and the addition of Butler and VCU, it will help the Musketeers even more in A-10 games.
The move to the A-10 will help VCU's overall schedule, according to coach Shaka Smart. The Rams will get more quality conference games, and Smart is convinced he will have more flexibility in the nonconference scheduling too.
San Diego State had the luxury of quality conference games in the Mountain West, but next year's move to the Big West means the Aztecs will have to be even more creative in scheduling.
SDSU coach Steve Fisher said his philosophy has been to get a mixture of buy games that the Aztecs should win, some games they that would be a tossup and a handful of games with big-name schools in home-and-home situations.
This coming season, the Aztecs are playing Syracuse on a ship off
the coast of San Diego and UCLA in Anaheim, they return a home-and-home to USC, play at Missouri State in the MWC/MVC Challenge and are in a solid Diamond Head field with Arizona in Honolulu.
And then there are the schools that make out their slate with the intent of scheduling their way into the NCAA field with the right combo of games.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson anticipates the Panthers will be an NCAA tournament team next season. So he didn't hesitate to be in the Battle 4 Atlantis, arguably the top tournament next season with Duke, Louisville, Missouri, Minnesota, VCU, Memphis and Stanford. The Panthers are also playing at George Mason, at UNLV, a neutral-site game with upstart Iowa in Des Moines and return games against Saint Mary's and Milwaukee.
"There's enough quality in that schedule that if we do well, we'll be in position to get an at-large bid when the Missouri Valley Conference play starts,'' Jacobson said. "We want to be good enough to do that. We're always trying to get a quality exempt event and two high-quality games each year. We want one or two hard road games and get two or three good home games.''
The Panthers are also counting on Creighton, Illinois State and Wichita State to provide power-rating boosts in a hotly contested Valley race.
"I feel like we're loaded up this year,'' Jacobson said.
Scheduling an at-large bid can be done, if a school wins the right games. But if the games aren't on the schedule, it's hard to even have a chance.
As coaches all around the country put the finishing touches on their nonconference slates this spring and summer, you can be assured they know exactly what is at stake.
Nonconference scheduling is in many ways an art. Coaches have different philosophies and different restrictions and it can be an often-frustrating game.