(This article was published Monday, Oct. 1, on ESPN.com)
By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com
On Nov. 21 of last year, The Citadel, a team destined for a dead-last finish in the Southern Conference, traveled 2,500 miles west for a one-off game against USC. The result, a 16-point garbage time-filled loss, was expected. What happened next was not.
The Citadel invited the Trojans over to its place.
"They asked us to return the game," said USC head coach Tim Floyd. "I decided to go ahead and do it. … I felt like it was the right thing to do."
And so, on Nov. 15 of this year, Floyd's team will travel the 2,500 miles to play a tiny military college that has never reached the NCAA tournament in 69 SoCon seasons. The Bulldogs ended 2006-07 with a 7-23 record, often playing in front of so-called crowds averaging 1,700 -- one-sixth the attendance at USC's sold-out home finale at the Galen Center. But this year, utilizing a Division I-record 13 freshmen, The Citadel will host the first college road game for O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson, young phenoms accustomed to playing in front of high school crowds much larger than McAlister Field House's 6,000-seat capacity.
"There's a certain amount of arrogance at our level, where we don't feel like we have to return games," Floyd explained. "But we have a young team that will have expectations, and we will need to learn that you play the game a little differently on the road. You don't experiment with that at UCLA or at Washington or at Stanford. … I want to teach these kids that no matter where you play, the road is difficult."
Few things in college basketball are as difficult as luring power-conference opponents into mid-major gyms, but the arrogance seems to be fading a bit. (Although USC has also scheduled South Carolina in its trip to the East Coast, so it's not like the Trojans are traveling 5,000 miles just for The Citadel.) In 2006-07, there were 32 instances of BCS schools daring to set foot on non-BCS campuses (excluding Conference USA); as the final few pieces of the 2007-08 scheduling jigsaw fall into place, at least 44 such games will dot this upcoming season's slate.
The most enticing contests on the list have big-ticket programs paying visits to the emerging national powers of the BracketBusters set. For instance, CAA stalwart Old Dominion will get a home shot against Final Four-fresh Georgetown on Nov. 28, as the Monarchs attempt to duplicate their 75-62 road upset of the Hoyas last season. Two Big Ten teams will venture into the Valley in December, as Indiana travels to Southern Illinois on Dec. 1, and Michigan State visits Bradley three days later.
Other scheduled games of this sort have logical explanations. Some are extensions of traditional in-state rivalries, such as Iowa at Northern Iowa and Iowa State at Drake (both on Dec. 5), or Nebraska's biennial trip to Creighton's Qwest Center on Nov. 24. Michigan's Dec. 1 excursion to Harvard will serve as a chance for the Wolverines to check up on former coach Tommy Amaker and his new life in Boston. North Carolina's visit to Penn on Dec. 4 means an ESPN2 date at the historic Palestra, and access to the major recruiting center of Philadelphia.
But many of these major-at-mid matchups involve top-tier squads playing at teams from one-bid leagues. Some, like Texas Tech's Nov. 14 cross-state trip to the Southland's Sam Houston State, are the result of longtime coaching friendships.
"We were fortunate, we gave Coach [Bob] Knight his first loss at Tech," said Sam Houston head coach Bob Marlin, recalling the Bearkats' 69-65 upset in Lubbock on Nov. 24, 2001. "From that time on, he's been a good friend and very supportive of our program. Of course, he got us right back out there to settle the score [a 93-67 TTU win two seasons later]. But last year, they asked us to come out there and open the season. … I didn't want to do it, and told Coach we'd come if they came out and played us in Hunstville. He agreed to do that."
Another factor is the rising cost of guarantee games, contracts that pay smaller schools a fee (the current market rate is $50,000-$75,000) for one-off, nonreturnable contests. Over the summer, Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried entered into a "two-for-one" agreement with Mercer of the Atlantic Sun. Mercer will host a matchup on Nov. 13 in Macon, Ga., in return for two trips to Tuscaloosa in 2008 and 2009.
"The guarantee money is getting pretty high," said 11th-year Mercer head coach Mark Slonaker, who handled Georgia's schedule as an assistant in the early '90s. "Things go in cycles. We're coming back to a two-for-one mentality. More of the big schools I talk to and bring up the two-for-one deal are receptive to it, when they used to scoff at the idea. Alabama was having trouble filling their guarantee games, so Mark and I started talking about it again. Our facility is good, they have a local guy on their team [freshman Senario Hillman from Irwinton, Ga.], and Mark had a good similar experience with Alabama State. He felt like it didn't hurt his team to take them on the road for a game that they should still win."
"A lot of coaches might be afraid of scheduling games like this," said Gottfried, whose Crimson Tide won at the SWAC's Alabama State 72-54 on Dec. 7, 2004. "I think it can only make a team better."
Perhaps the most important reason to leave the cozy confines and play elsewhere, anywhere, is the potential NCAA impact once March rolls around.
"If you're a team that's a very solid tournament contender, then it doesn't make much difference," Gottfried said. "But if you're a team that ends up on the bubble, and the committee sees that you're willing to take your team on the road, wherever it is, it's a good thing. So we're going to Mercer, we're going to Texas A&M. In my talks and dealings with the committee members, they think that's important. And anything that helps our chances to go to the NCAA Tournament, I'm willing to do."
More aggressive road scheduling also can affect bracket positioning as well. Last season, USC played three sub-300 RPI teams at home (The Citadel, Mississippi Valley State and Bethune-Cookman), which depressed the RPI of a 23-win Trojan team to 40, and likely cost Tim Floyd's team a seed number or two.
"They tell us that we have to play nonconference road games," said Floyd, coming off an NCAA No. 5 seed and tournament wins over Arkansas and Texas. "They look at your schedule, and if you're loaded up with low-RPI games at home, that's a problem. In my opinion, a game like [at The Citadel] should help in terms of the selection committee rather than hurt. … Road wins, no matter where they're played, are viewed as a positive."
But how much of a positive? Is it more advantageous for a team with serious NCAA aspirations to play low-RPI teams like The Citadel on the road, or is it better to keep them off the schedule altogether?
"In ratings terms, it's better to have played the game on the road, but not [by] a whole lot," said RPI expert Jerry Palm, longtime proprietor of the collegerpi.com Web site. "It's a game that can only hurt their tournament chances though. A big win is to be expected. Anything else could be a negative in the committee's eyes. … A loss would be a disaster."
Sure, the idea of The Citadel's beating USC on any court in America might seem a total impossibility. But any power-conference team that ventures into a tiny gym should remember independent North Dakota State's 62-55 home win over Wisconsin on Jan. 21, 2006, a loss that sent the Badgers' season into a Big Ten tailspin. The Trojans' head coach is fully aware of the potential danger of a similarly embarrassing dropped decision.
"As coaches, we're always pointing to games that are likely to be very difficult," Floyd said. "At our first meeting, I addressed this game as one of major concern for me. I told them I knew they'd be ready to play against UCLA, Memphis, Oklahoma, but that this was a game that is going to be of utmost importance on our schedule. A lot of our players don't quite yet have a full understanding of what the road's like. They need to know that teams at every level know how to play."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.