Schwartz: The Ho-Hum of Home Hoops Schedules

August 20, 2017

Written by David Schwartz

We interrupt this run-up to football season to talk a little hoops.

Sometimes it’s funny how the mind alters memory to fit one’s perception.

When Iowa announced its 2017-18 men’s basketball schedule last week, and the best non-conference home game looked like a snoozer against a very mediocre Northern Illinois program, I rolled my eyes and went into full “back in my day” mode.

Back in my day, the Hawkeyes’ non-conference schedule was packed with rivals like Duke, Arizona, UCLA, the Philadelphia 76ers, Nikita Khrushchev, and the Kree Empire. The Hawkeyes played only the best competition. Men were men. Fans saw only college basketball’s best talent.

I hemmed and hawed. But I was wrong. Iowa’s home non-conference schedule was never as good as I remembered. In fact, the lousy home non-conference lineup that’s scheduled for the 2017-18 coming season is only slightly worse than what we would have seen in 2007-08 or 1997-98.

The 1994-95 home schedule, for instance, included Pepperdine, Ohio, Long Island University, Western Carolina, and other uninspiring matchups. The highlight was Iowa State.

That season’s non-conference schedule included a win over No. 7 Duke and a nine-point loss to No. 3 Arkansas. The Duke win was especially memorable. But it took place during a tournament in Hawaii.

And that – the Hawaii tournament – is where the altered memories came from. Because when the Hawkeyes do land a top-tier non-conference opponent, it’s almost always at a tournament or other special event. That’s great for TV, but it stinks for fans of the home team.

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The 2015-16 squad’s non-conference schedule included both Syracuse and Texas. Those games took place at an off-site holiday tournament. Special events such as the Great Alaska Shootout, Coaches vs. Cancer, Big Ten vs. ACC Challenge, Maui Invitational, and those that take place at the Caribbean resorts tend to give us the preseason matchups we remember. Not just for the Hawkeyes, but most of college hoops.

Iowa is not the only team that operates this way. Many (not all, but most) power conference men’s basketball teams play it safe at home and instead choose to take their non-conference chances on neural sites. Try it: Pick a random power-conference team and look up their home non-conference schedule.

Going back in time reveals a similar pattern for the Hawkeyes and most of college hoops. The 1992-93 Carver-Hawkeye schedule was as average as average can be. Iowa hosted ISU, but that was as good as it got. On paper, Mississippi State carried the gravitas of coming from the Southeastern Conference, but the Bulldogs went 13-16 that season. Iowa got the SEC’s chewed-up leftovers.

The same thing happened in 1996-97, when the home non-conference highlight was the Big 12’s Missouri, which – like Mississippi State several years earlier – finished its season below .500.

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If there ever was a heyday, we have to go back to the 1980s to find it. The 1980s was college basketball’s greatest decade. Players were starting to benefit from better training techniques, a booming cable TV industry expanded national exposure, and NBA rules prevented most college players from leaving before their junior year, which meant the best college teams were stacked not just with talented players, but experienced ones who learned how to play together over time.

That was also just before the era of the aforementioned special-event, off-site tournaments. There were a handful, but most significant non-conference matchups, however, took place at one of the team’s home arenas.

That why when you jump back to Iowa’s 1980s-era home non-conference schedule you can find opponents like No. 4 Arizona (1987) and No. 17 North Carolina (1989). (Iowa won at UNC in 2015 as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but let’s not hold our breath that the leagues will close the circle on that home-and-home anytime soon.)

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Duke and UNC at Carver-Hawkeye happened 30 years ago. Those days aren’t coming back. At least for the time being, we’re stuck with what we have at Carver-Hawkeye Arena: Iowa State every-other season, an occasional ACC opponent, maybe a random major-conference team that Iowa catches at the right time, and a giant stack of University of Some State’s Random Satellite Campus.

And that’s fine, I guess, as long as we as fans get the right Big Ten matchups to satisfy our appetite for good home competition.

Still, it would be nice to have something to look forward to.

We now return to your regularly scheduled football hype.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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