October 04, 2011
Since the Big 12, WCC, Missouri Valley and Mountain West are three of the only prominent leagues in which teams play every conference opponent twice, schedules in the rest of the nation's leagues are not always uniform. Here are three teams that could benefit greatly next season from unbalanced league schedules:
Scheduling quirk: Whereas fellow Conference USA contenders Memphis, Marshall and Central Florida each have home-and-home series against one-another, Tulsa plays each member of that trio once apiece, all at home. The Golden Hurricane also get potential upper division teams Alabama-Birmingham and Southern Mississippi once apiece, though those games are on the road. That tissue-soft schedule is a product of the East/West format Conference USA uses for scheduling but not for divisions. With UTEP and Houston rebuilding and Tulane and SMU struggling, Rice is the only conference opponent Tulsa plays twice likely to challenge for a top-six finish in the conference.
Impact: Had I noticed sooner the advantage Tulsa has over the rest of the teams chasing Memphis, I probably would have picked the Golden Hurricane to finish higher than fourth in my Conference USA preview last week. Tulsa loses 20-point scorer Justin Hurtt from last season, but the return of sharp shooter and former UConn transfer Scottie Haralson, talented 6-foot-4 sophomore Jordan Clarkson and top big man Steven Idlet gives the Golden Hurricane ample talent. Add in the scheduling edge Tulsa has over Marshall and Central Florida, and that could easily be enough to help Doug Wojcik's team sneak into a second-place finish.
2. ALABAMA (Schedule)
Scheduling quirk: Because the SEC consolidated into a single division but preserved its East-West scheduling format for next season, Alabama has the distinct advantage of facing fellow conference title contenders Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt once apiece. Better yet, the Tide will host the Gators and Commodores, though they do not manage to avoid the daunting trip to Rupp Arena. NCAA tournament contender Mississippi State also will benefit from facing the former SEC East teams only once, but the Bulldogs do have to travel to Gainesville and Nashville and getting Kentucky at home is certainly no sure-fire victory.
Impact: Considering Alabama returns leading scorers JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell and Trevor Releford from a team that went 12-4 in the SEC a year ago, there's no reason to believe the Tide can't match that record again this season. Aside from Mississippi State, the remaining teams Alabama faces twice next season don't appear especially strong. New recruits will help LSU and Arkansas but it may take a year or two, while Ole Miss appears unusually weak and Auburn remains a bottom feeder. So many games against that soft underbelly of the SEC could be enough for Alabama to push Vanderbilt and Florida for second place behind Kentucky and maybe even take advantage if the youthful Wildcats unexpectedly stumble.
Scheduling quirk: A 14-team league and a 16-game conference schedule make for some unbalanced schedules in the Atlantic 10, and Temple benefits this season. The Owls face Xavier and Dayton once apiece and both at home, meaning they avoid a trip to either of the Atlantic 10's two most daunting arenas. And even better for Temple, the three league opponents they face twice are La Salle, St. Joseph's and Fordham, potentially the Atlantic 10's three worst teams next season. That certainly softens the blow of a pair of potentially dangerous league road games at Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure.
Impact: What increases the impact of Temple's cushy schedule is that fellow Atlantic 10 favorite Xavier has a far more challenging league slate. In addition to traveling to Temple for their lone matchup of the season, Xavier faces rival Dayton, improved Saint Louis and dangerous Charlotte twice apiece. Not quite La Salle, St. Joseph's and Fordham, is that? Xavier deserves to be the Atlantic 10 preseason favorite in spite of that slate since it has won the league five straight years, but the schedule so decisively favoring Temple may help the Owls close the gap.