The first two opponents the Michigan Wolverines faced last year were Massachusetts-Lowell and South Carolina State. Even die-hard basketball fans would have had trouble locating these schools if the state wasn’t in the name. Michigan won by a combined 61 points. It wasn’t exactly a marquee matchup.
Michigan State fared a little better with quality opponents early in the season, playing blue-bloods Kentucky and North Carolina. Yet their schedule was still littered with names like McNeese State and Northern Florida.
Traditionally, the early stages of the NCAA Basketball season are a time for big-time programs to feast on mid-major cupcakes. It helps teams tune-up, and also provides some resume padding wins for the NCAA tournament.
However, this isn’t always the best deal for the fans, and attendance showed their dissatisfaction. The difference in student attendance between Michigan vs. Arizona and Michigan vs. South Carolina State was upwards of 1,500 people. Its not hard to infer that people want to see premium match ups.
The suits in charge of scheduling, marketing, and the athletic departments have scrambled for a solution. Free pizzas and t-shirt giveaways were never enough to entice fans to show up, so they turned to the actual schedule itself.
One of the saving graces of the early season are tournaments and conference challenges. Few colleges host the early-season tournaments, so the conference tournaments are the best way to inflate the schedule.
One example is the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. The ACC may have dominated the early years, but playing the Dukes and North Carolinas eventually raised the profile of the Big Ten. In the last five seasons, the Big Ten has won three times, while the other two have resulted in ties. The Challenge pairs teams in terms of competitiveness, so the top teams play each other, and even the lesser teams have close games. It is a win-win for fans who would rather watch quality teams square off, rather than stronger teams tee off on the lesser ones.
The Big Ten has taken another step towards eliminating games against the Coppin State. This step is the Gavitt Tipoff Games, a series of games against teams from the Big East. Named for Big East founder David Gavitt, this series will run through at least 2020.
What about the opponents?
To call the Big East a shell of its former self would be a bit extreme, but it has definitely lost some luster. Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville are all consistent basketball powerhouses that left for greener pastures.
This isn’t to say the conference is lacking in quality basketball. The conference was responsible for several top seeds in last year’s tournament; including #2 Villanova and #3 Creighton. Despite down years, Butler, Georgetown and Marquette usually have good programs.
It isn’t as big of a get as it would have been two years ago, but it is still a step towards scheduling better teams.
What does it mean for Michigan and Michigan State?
Michigan State has been on top of the Big Ten for years, and Michigan has joined them there for the past four seasons. The games start in 2015, and from the looks of recruiting, both schools will remain top-tier programs. However, this doesn’t always guarantee the best team for either Michigan or MSU. The Big Ten program is much deeper from top to bottom than the Big East. Wisconsin and Ohio State will consistently challenge for the top spot, along with occasional foray from Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota.
This means Michigan and Michigan State will occasionally have to play the 3rd, 4th, or even 5th best team in the Big East. These sort of conference challenges also like to have some variety in who plays who, so repeat match-ups probably won’t occur until every three years or so.
The bottom line is, these teams are a step up from the typical programs faced in the early season. It is a win for everyone: better games for fans, more television dollars for the conferences, and ratings increases for whoever is broadcasting.