Tired of getting one bid annually to the NCAA Basketball Tournament – and believing it deserved more — Conference USA is trying something bold and different this season.
It almost surely won’t work. It will probably cost the schools more money. But at least they are trying something.
Stay with me. This is complicated. Each CUSA team had 14 conference games scheduled before the season began. Now then, based on their records in those 14 games, the final four games have been scheduled.
The league’s 14 teams have been placed into three pods, based on their records. The five teams with the best records are the first pod. The next five are the second pod. The last four teams in the standings form the third pod.
Now then, the teams in each pod will play each other over the final three weeks of the regular season. In doing so, the league is ensuring that the teams with the highest RPIs will play one another.
In theory, this will increase their chances of achieving a higher RPI, thus a better NCAA resume.
It won’t work because Old Dominion, 21-6, has the league’s highest RPI at No. 83 in the nation. Western Kentucky is next at No. 99, followed by Southern Miss at No. 101.
Maybe it would have helped Middle Tennessee State last season. The Blue Raiders finished with 25 victories and a 16-2 league record. Kermit Davis’ team was good — really good — and NCAA Tournament-deserving, but was then upset by Southern Miss in the league tournament and left out of the NCAA pairings. Maybe, just maybe, had their RPI been a little higher, the Raiders might have gotten in.
But I doubt it.
At any rate, the CUSA felt it had to do something. So the pod system — or flex scheduling — is what league officials came up with.
Judy MacLeod, the league’s commissioner, told the Associated Press: “It’s never been done, so we’re a little wary. But we felt like it was an opportunity we had to try. If we keep doing the same thing, nothing’s going to change.”
Nothing likely will. Mid-major leagues, such as CUSA, have essentially been locked out of the NCAA tourney, save for their champion.
It has become increasingly difficult for the mid-majors to schedule games with the Power Five conference teams and, when they do, those games are almost always on the road.
For instance, Southern Miss got its one shot at a Power Five team at Kansas State in December. The Golden Eagles led for much of the game but lost at the end, 55-51. Kansas State, 19-6, leads the Big 12 Conference with a 9-3 record and has a win over Kansas. In USM’s case, close doesn’t get you anything, much less a cigar.
Western Kentucky has wins over Arkansas, West Virginia and Wisconsin, but has lost five times in Conference USA. Old Dominion won at Syracuse, but probably has to win the CUSA Tournament to get into the NCAA field. Fair or not, it is what it is.
Some may wonder: Why might this flex scheduling cost the CUSA schools more money?
Good question. It is because most cannot afford to charter to road games. They fly commercial. As every sports writer knows, you save a lot of money when you book your flights in advance. But the flex games are booked on short notice and don’t allow for a discount. USM presumably will fly to games at Western Kentucky and Old Dominion (Norfolk, Va.) on short notice. It won’t be cheap.
The Golden Eagles’ Doc Sadler has done a terrific job and has to be a leading contender for CUSA Coach of the Year. This Southern Miss team deserves something for winning nine of its last 11 conference games. Big, appreciative crowds for its final two home games — against UAB and UTSA — would be a start and help pay for those expensive road trips.
Meanwhile, flex schedule or not, USM does still have a path to the NCAA Tournament. Just win the league tournament. This year, it is do-able.
Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at email@example.com.