SALT LAKE CITY — Usually college basketball scheduling isn’t a topic of water cooler talk in late May when the sports world’s attention is focused on NBA basketball playoffs, NHL hockey playoffs, Major League Baseball, the Indianapolis 500 and the NCAA women’s lacrosse national championship.
But scheduling has been in the news lately.
- The Pac-12 Conference is expanding to a 20-game league schedule beginning in 2020-21.
- New BYU coach Mark Pope says his scheduling philosophy is “pretty much just dumb” and that he’ll play anyone, any time, anywhere. He’s even not shying away from playing his old school, Utah Valley.
- The Pac-12 is making its member schools eliminate regular-season games against non-Division I opponents and their nonconference opponents must have an average NET ranking of 175 or better (in Division I) over a five-year period.
So that brings up one of my pet peeves, something I’ve railed about in the past. Why don’t all the local basketball teams, in our basketball-rich state, play each other on a regular basis?
We have six major-college teams — Utah, BYU, Utah State, Weber State, Utah Valley and Southern Utah -- playing in Division I, which consists of 351 schools.
Well, actually they do, with one glaring exception, a school that has shied away from in-state competition in recent years.
Over the past eight years since Larry Krystkowiak took over as Ute coach, the Utes have played a grand total of 12 in-state games. Seven have come against BYU, two against Utah State and one each against Weber State, Utah Valley and Southern Utah.
During the same time span, Weber State has played 40 in-state games, Utah State and BYU have each played 27, while Utah Valley has played 22 and Southern Utah 20. Keep in mind that Weber State and Southern Utah’s numbers are somewhat skewed by the fact that they must play each other twice a year as members of the Big Sky Conference.
So why won’t Utah play in-state schools?
In the past, Coach K has said it’s not that easy scheduling games, that he didn’t want to play his old friend Stew Morrill at Utah State and by golly, it’s not his team’s “responsibility” to play in-state opponents. He’s also made it clear he would prefer not to play BYU if he didn’t have to.
I’ll never understand how hard it is to schedule an in-state school that’s willing to play you, instead of the likes of Florida A&M, Savannah State and Mississippi Valley State (two years in a row!) that travel clear across America to play here. I’ve talked to some of these local coaches and they’re more than willing to play Utah, even if they have to play in Salt Lake every year.
Utah played Weber State 37 times over a 38-year stretch until Krystkowiak took over and hasn’t played them since 2011, his first year (a 29-point loss didn’t help matters). Since then, the Utes have played 11 Big Sky opponents, more than one every year, but none has been the school 40 miles up the road. The Utes also played Utah State 224 times, pretty much every year from 1909 until 2010, Jim Boylen’s last season at Utah. Since then, the Utes and Aggies have played once, finally meeting again in 2017 at the Beehive Classic.
Utah’s new athletic director, Mark Harlan, seems open-minded about doing what’s best for his athletic department, and although I know basketball coaches usually make their own schedules, the athletic director could twist some arms when it comes to scheduling.
Every time I look out over a sea of red seats at the Huntsman Center or the black curtains drawn above for some of the early Ute basketball games, I wonder how much that would change if the Utes were playing Weber or UVU or Utah State instead of the likes of Delaware State, Prairie View A&M and Maine. Not only would those games bring in more fans from those schools, it would heighten interest among the Ute faithful to be playing an in-state opponent featuring Utah kids.
The new mandate from the conference shouldn’t be a hindrance, as most of the in-state schools are usually ranked in the top 175. The new 20-game schedule could be another excuse not to schedule in-state schools, but the Utes will still be playing nine or 10 nonconference games.
Give the Utes credit, they have upgraded their schedule the past couple of years with teams like Missouri, Nevada and Tulsa coming to town. But why not bring in those schools, plus a few in-state schools in November and December, and add some extra excitement before the Pac-12 schedule gets underway?
Time to get 'er done, Utah.