HUNTINGTON — The vision for Conference USA men’s and women’s basketball scheduling is starting to clear up.
While multiple models are still being discussed in advance of the league’s spring meetings, it appears that the league’s 18-game conference schedule is the best — and most likely — option due to logistics.
Conference USA is moving away from Bonus Play, a trial format which solidified the first 14 games of the schedule before breaking teams down into three pods for the final four games of the regular-season slate, based on placement within conference standings. With that format going away, the league has looked at different formats, which include maintaining an 18-game slate with modifications or possibly shrinking the league’s schedule to 16 games.
According to Jeff O’Malley, Marshall’s associate director of athletics who oversees basketball, it gets down to one question.
“How can they make things more cost-effective, but still maintain competitive balance and the student-athlete experience?” O’Malley said. “That’s a tough challenge.”
On paper, it appears the 18-game schedule works the best within the league’s framework.
Conference USA teams would play home-and-home series against five opponents that are geographically closest while playing single games against the other eight opponents. That format enables the league to maintain travel partners and continue with its Thursday-Saturday game-play arrangement.
In Marshall’s case, such a scenario would include playing teams such as Western Kentucky, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee and UAB twice while playing other eight league members once.
O’Malley said many within the league feel the 18-game setup is successful.
“I think everyone was in agreement that it worked well and it was pretty good from a cost-saving standpoint if they can just eliminate some of the longer trips for people,” O’Malley said.
Based on the 2019-20 schedule, Marshall would travel for weekends against Rice and North Texas, as well as Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech, while hosting weekends with UTSA and UTEP, along with FIU and FAU.
Maintaining travel partners is also at the center of the discussions, which are expected to be finalized at Conference USA’s spring meetings, scheduled for May 18-20. In recent years, Marshall’s travel partner in C-USA has been Western Kentucky.
“I think that travel partners really work for us in this league, especially from a cost-saving standpoint,” O’Malley said. “When you make a trip, you’re on the road and knocking out two games. From a missed class standpoint, it really helps.”
Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod mentioned the possibility of shortening the league slate in recent interviews, but time is limited to figure out all the details to adjust from 18 games to a potential format with 16 games.
With many teams already finalizing non-conference schedules, Conference USA teams would struggle to find games to offset the shrink in the conference slate unless there is a cooperative agreement for games with another conference in the same situation.
“You have to get a schedule out and then you’ve got to get TV partners,” O’Malley said. “Usually we get in spring meetings and finalize things, and then maybe the middle to the end of June they get a schedule out. That’s been the timing the last few years.”
The Sun Belt Conference would be a potential partner in those efforts, but most teams within that league are just as distant from a travel aspect as the far-reaching teams within Conference USA.
No matter the format, it does not appear the league will switch to a divisional format, opting to maintain its 14-team, one-division setup.