‘It’s amazing that any games get scheduled at all:’ The process of making a college basketball schedule

Redshirt senior forward Jameel McKay, redshirt senior forward Abdel Nader, senior guard Nazareth Mitrou-Long and director of basketball operations Micah Byars watch the score at the NCAA Tournament against Iona on March 17 in Denver. Iowa State won 94-81 and will face Arkansas-Little Rock on March 19.

Aaron Marner

The process of creating a college basketball schedule can be a nightmare.

First, you have to consider conference games. The Big 12, for example, plays 18 conference games. For the 2017-18 season, league play began on Dec. 29, and the final regular season games were on March 3.

Then, you have to factor in other commitments. For Iowa State, that would include the Big 12/SEC challenge, the annual Cy-Hawk rivalry game with Iowa and the Hy-Vee Classic against Northern Iowa or Drake.

When it’s all said and done, the staff is left with about nine games to schedule on their own. Then, the 351 Division I men’s basketball programs all trying to schedule their games on their own time, meaning things can get messy.

“You’re looking for a match on a certain date with money and players and all of these things that just match up perfect,” said Micah Byars, Iowa State’s director of men’s basketball operations. “When you think about the total scope of what scheduling actually means, it’s amazing that any games get scheduled at all. So many factors have to work.”

With only a handful of games available to schedule, it’s up to Byars and the coaching staff to develop a non-conference slate that accomplishes several things.

Another factor that makes scheduling so tough is that it’s often done over a year out. When it’s done that far out, teams can be completely different than they were when the schedule was made.

“It’s really kind of a crapshoot, especially in this day and age with transfers,” Byars said. “Somebody that we scheduled last year could have a drastic change in their roster one way or the other.

“It worked that way with Missouri. When we initially signed that contract Cuonzo Martin wasn’t the head coach, nor did they have the roster that they have.”

Maybe the best example of that aside from Missouri is Lehigh. In 2011-12, the Cyclones opened up against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Lehigh’s roster featured two Iowa natives, one of which was a senior, so the game in Ames was a homecoming of sorts for Lehigh.

The problem? Lehigh had improved immensely from the year before, thanks in large part to then-junior guard (and currently Portland Trail Blazer) C.J. McCollum. McCollum led Lehigh to 27 wins that year, including a huge upset over Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

But when the schedule was made, Iowa State thought it was setting up a likely win.

Then there’s the issue of wanting to prepare the team for the rest of the season. Byars and the coaches make a concerted effort to schedule teams that play various styles.

In 2016-17, the Cyclones played Savannah State, The Citadel and Nebraska Omaha in the non-conference. Those three teams were ranked first, second and ninth nationally in adjusted pace, per KenPom.

To counter that, the Cyclones also faced Miami (339th) and Cincinnati (330th). That way, players and coaches alike can get familiar with different styles of play they may face throughout the rest of the season.

Iowa State also has to work around its non-conference tournaments. The Cyclones typically play in a late-November tournament that gives them three games against high-quality competition.

For the 2018-19 season, the Cyclones will be at the pinnacle of non-conference tournaments: the Maui Invitational. The field is loaded, with teams such as Duke, Xavier, Arizona and Gonzaga in the tournament. Six of the eight teams in next year’s Maui Invitational played in this year’s NCAA Tournament, four of which advanced to the round of 32.

“Planning for this has probably been more unique than any other multi-team event, just because there’s so many factors that go along with it,” Byars said.

Byars said the contract for the Maui Invitational was signed in 2014, after Iowa State made the Sweet 16 with players like DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim and a sophomore named Georges Niang.

When things are being planned out that far ahead, it’s next to impossible to know how good teams will be. Players like Monte Morris and Matt Thomas were freshmen on that Sweet 16 team, and both are a year into their professional basketball careers already.

With big tournaments like that, Byars said, there’s one common denominator.

“The process is really predicated on the fans,” Byars said. “We get such great fan support at all of those neutral site events that people are knocking our doors down.

“There’s also equally successful teams that don’t get the interest [from the tournaments] because of the fan turnout.”