HUNTINGTON — Any time scheduling comes up in the same sentence as Conference USA basketball, it brings on thoughts of the league’s infamous Bonus Play format.
That is enough to bring a collective shudder from those associated with the league.
While Bonus Play is in the rearview mirror, Conference USA men’s and women’s basketball again may tweak its scheduling, based on recent comments from Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod.
Men’s and women’s basketball travel is a major expenditure for the league each year, and is a focal point as the league looks to save money.
“Distance is an issue, there’s no question,” Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said. “We are in conversation right now to figure out the best way to schedule. Part of that is regionalizing our schedules. It’s been a focal point and we’ve been discussing it.”
Men’s and women’s basketball travel within Conference USA takes on a major expense because of the number of contests and the league’s current format.
There are two aspects of the current format that could be looked at to revamp in the interest of saving money.
For starters, the conference has been using a mirrored scheduling approach for the men’s and women’s basketball regular seasons. That means if Marshall’s men’s team is hosting UTEP and UTSA in a weekend, the Herd women are on the road playing the same teams during the same weekend.
Given that all Conference USA members currently play each other in the regular season, that ensures that Marshall’s athletic department is funding at least one trip to each of the other 13 Conference USA member schools during the basketball season — no cheap venture.
In addition to that mirrored format, Conference USA also embarked on the experiment-gone-wrong that was Bonus Play that broke the league into three pods after 14 conference games for the final four-game stretch.
The hope of the league was that having the top pod play each other would give the league more visibility for a potential at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.
All it ended up giving the league was added travel expense and road-weary teams at season’s end. Marshall made two trips to UAB and UTSA in one season as a result.
The trial period of Bonus Play is complete and it is not expected to return, which opens up several doors for MacLeod and the league’s athletic directors to tweak the current format while maintaining competitive balance.
“I can assure you our conference office is providing us with the support that we need to make the right decisions to deal with things such as improved regionalized scheduling,” Hamrick said.
While there is no word from within the league on potential changes, here are a couple of ideas that may garner a mention in the upcoming spring meetings, which are taking place by teleconference May 18-20.
First, the league has to decide whether it wants to stay with its open format or break down into two divisions, which would help to regionalize schedules.
A two-division format could feasibly stay at 18 games with divisional opponents playing home-and-home series and cross-divisional opponents meeting once. To provide travel relief, all teams could see a cross-divisional schedule that includes one home weekend, one road weekend and a split weekend.
This divisional format helps to regionalize play, which would be a huge savings.
Marshall’s average travel distance for all Conference USA opponents is 825.7 miles. However, with regional divisions, that number shrinks to 579.5 miles per opponent.
To put into context the potential savings, say Marshall does a Western Kentucky-Middle Tennessee road weekend. That is 281 miles from Huntington to Bowling Green, Kentucky, 100 miles from Bowling Green to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and 374 miles from Murfreesboro back to Huntington.
That round-trip total alone is only 755 miles, which is less mileage than the travel one way to every West division opponent except UAB. It saves travel costs and, potentially, class time for students as well.
Another aspect the league has to look at is whether playing every team within the league is viable due to the spread-out nature of the conference’s landscape.
MacLeod mentioned in an interview with The Athletic that all options are on the table, including shortening the league slate.
This brings on a tricky solution, but one that may also be more exciting when it comes to conference tournament time.
To achieve competitive balance in the league standings under this format, the league would have to break down into divisions with seven teams on each side.
The league could go to a 14-game format, which would have the aforementioned home-and-home series within division, but only two cross-division opponents — much like football.
Ideally, the two cross-divisional games would resemble football’s format, which would mean one home and one road game in cross-divisional play.
Of note, that also opens teams up to four more non-conference games, which could be “pay games” to boost revenue or regionalized non-conference games to limit costs.
The tricky aspect to this scenario is that, to achieve competitive balance, the format for the tournament would also have to change.
In theory, the top two teams in each division would get byes and then the tournament would set up into cross-divisional play for the first round with the No. 3 seed in each division facing the No. 6 seed from the opposite division and the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds taking part in a cross-divisional first round as well.
Then, it would play out from the quarterfinals on. This format keeps a 12-team approach, which the league has used in past years and does not alter the length of the tournament.
Following the league’s spring meetings, the picture will become clearer on a potential format. The good news is the league has options to save money, which will ease the burden on all schools.